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Season Preview 2019 – Part 1 05/08/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Football!  Splendid. Four today.  Four tomorrow.  And so on…


INS: Nicolas Pépé (Lille, £72,000,000), William Saliba (Saint Étienne, £27,000,000), Gabriel Martinelli (Ituano, Undisclosed), Dani Ceballos (Real Madrid, Season Loan)

OUTS: David Ospina (Napoli, €4,000,000), Krystian Bielik (Derby County, Undisclosed), Charlie Gilmour (Norwich City, Free), Aaron Ramsey (Juventus, Free), Bayli Spencer-Adams (Watford, Free), Daniel Ballard (Swindon Town, Season Loan), William Saliba (Saint Étienne, Season Loan), Ben Sheaf (Doncaster Rovers, Six Month Loan), Stephan Lichtsteiner, Danny Welbeck, Petr Cech (retired)

OUR EX-GUNNERS: Bayli Spencer-Adams

THEIR EX-ORNS: Héctor Bellerín

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two profoundly irritating defeats: one decided at the death, the other in the opening minutes.


2018-19 0-1 0-2
2017-18 2-1
2016-17 1-3 2-1
2015-16 0-3 2-1
2001-02 2-4
1999-00 2-3 0-1
1986-87 3-1


Bellerín          Mustafi        Sokratis        Monreal
Ceballos                 Torreira                   Xhaka
Pépé                        Aubameyang                             Iwobi

VERDICT: There are certainly teams that I dislike more than Arsenal.  Others disagree vehemently, I know, but I find the Gunners amongst the less objectionable of the top six.

Nonetheless…  when a big gun starts to slide and supporters bred, perhaps recruited on the basis of a side that really was the best in the country a fair few years ago now begin to object about their rightful place and so forth, you can’t help but snigger a little bit.  And I know that it’s not all Gunners, empty vessels make the most noise and so forth.  Nonetheless…  with the likes of Özil, Mustafi and Mkhitaryan on too much money to attract a buyer, with skipper Koscielny demanding an exit, further experienced departures unreplaced and despite, in former Watford target Pépé, signing dribbler of the like that the squad desperately needs, this is not a Gunners side that’s about to challenge for the title again.

They’re still a good side, obviously.  Let’s not get carried away.  The two forwards are excellent (if only they could work out how to use them simultaneously) and there are some talented-sounding kids on the edge of the side. The defence is flaky, still. Arsenal will probably finish top six.

But only probably.


INS: Tyrone Mings (AFC Bournemouth, £20,000,000), Douglas Luiz (Manchester City, £15,000,000), Ezri Konsa (Brentford, £12,000,000), Trézéguet (Kasımpaşa, £8,750,000), Tom Heaton (Burnley, £8,000,000), Anwar El Ghazi (Lille, Undisclosed), Björn Engels (Reims, Undisclosed), Kourtney Hause (Wolves, Undisclosed), Jota (Birmingham City, Undisclosed), Marvelous Nakamba (Club Brugge, Undisclosed), Matt Targett (Southampton, Undisclosed), Wesley (Club Brugge, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Gary Gardner (Birmingham City, Undisclosed), Albert Adomah (Nottingham Forest, Free), Corey Blackett-Taylor (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Ritchie de Laet (Royal Antwerp, Free), Tommy Elphick (Huddersfield Town, Free), Jordan Lyden (Swindon Town, Free), Harry McKirdy (Carlisle United, Free), Mark Bunn, Alan Hutton, Mile Jedinak, Glen Whelan, Jake Doyle-Hales (Cheltenham, Season Loan), Andre Green (Preston North End, Season Loan), Rushian Hepburn-Murphy (Tranmere Rovers, Season Loan), Matija Šarkić (Livingston, Season Loan), Tammy Abraham (Chelsea, End of Loan), Axel Tuanzebe (Manchester United, End of Loan), Micah Richards (retired)

OUR EX-VILLANS: Tom Cleverley

THEIR EX-ORNS: David Hughes (U18 Manager), Henri Lansbury

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A nil-nil draw in a friendly celebrating GT, and two 3-2 victories in which Troy filled his boots, Giedrius Arlauskis enjoyed his Premier League career and we snatched an unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat.


2017-18 0-0
2015-16 3-2
1999-00 0-1 0-4
1982-83 2-1


Guilbert             Mings                Engels                  Targett
Grealish                Luiz                 McGinn
Jota                    Wesley              Trézéguet

VERDICT: The thing about writing these previews is that they can’t all be done at once.  In fact, doing one a day is a challenging enough pace…  chuck in a week’s holiday (of which today ought to be the last, assuming that you’re reading on Monday) and… well you do the maths.  Just be thankful that this preview doesn’t discuss Dion Dublin or Gordon Cowans.

I’m writing on the day that Villa confirm the re-signing of Tyrone Mings for what, even in today’s climate, is an imposing looking £20m fee.  The latest, indeed, of a fairly impressive set of signings since promotion.  The thing is…  Villa’s signings, swapping Wesley in for Tammy Abraham, see them if not running to stand still then certainly suffering from the need to replace the many significant loan signings in a squad that was promoted via the play-offs having finished fifth in the second tier.

Dean Smith has perhaps the toughest job of the promoted managers given this aspect of the summer’s rebuilding and the high expectations which three years in the second tier won’t have dampened.  Nonetheless, there are anxious voices on the Villa messageboards;  as it stands, a month before the season starts and despite significant outlay you’d say that the best Villa can hope for this season is just staying up.  That’s certainly possible in a season where there will be significant competition for the bottom three but a shedload of signings doesn’t guarantee success (ask Fulham).  Sixteenth.  Just about.


INS: Phillip Billing (Huddersfield Town, £15,000,000), Arnaut Danjuma (Club Brugge, £13,700,000), Lloyd Kelly (Bristol City, £13,000,000), Jack Stacey (Luton Town, £4,000,000)

OUTS: Tyrone Mings (£20,000,000), Lys Mousset (Sheffield United, £10,000,000), Connor Mahoney (Millwall, Undisclosed), Marc Pugh (Queens Park Rangers, Free), James Boote, Nathan Clements, Jordan Holmes, Tom Parker-Trott, Emerson Hyndman (Atlanta United, Six Month Loan), Michael Ndjoli (Gillingham, Season Loan), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool, End of Loan), Rafal Stefán Daníelsson (Fram, End of Loan)


THEIR EX-ORNS: Nathan Aké, Carl Fletcher (Loan Player Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A calamitous and incongruous hammering at Vicarage Road, and the traditional uneventful trip to Dorset which saw six goals scored before half time.


2018-19 0-4
2017-18 2-2
2016-17 2-2
2015-16 1-1  1-1
2014-15 1-1
2013-14 6-1 2-0
2003-04 1-0
1997-98 2-1 1-0
1996-97 0-1 2-1
1995-96 1-1


Smith          S.Cook               Aké             Kelly
Billing           Lerma           Brooks
Fraser                            Wilson                                King

VERDICT: So run with this a second.  Let’s just say that Eddie Howe’s star is waning.  That he’s getting itchy feet.  Not quite as focused as he once was.  Kind of narked that nobody’s moved in on his obvious genius, going through the motions.  That Bournemouth’s patchy recruitment history has a doozy of a summer, that their prolific injury record ramps up, VAR penalises some clubs’ practices more than others, Jefferson Lerma gets a twelve match ban for lamping David Brooks and the season goes downhill from there.

They’d still be too good to go down, probably.  But we can hope.


INS: Adam Webster (Bristol City, £20,000,000), Leandro Trossard (Genk, £15,000,000), Matt Clarke (Portsmouth, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Markus Suttner (Fortuna Düsseldorf, Undisclosed), Ben Barclay (Accrington Stanley, Free), Matthew Weaire (Colchester United, Free), Matt Clarke (Derby County, Season Loan), Anthony Knockaert (Fulham, Season Loan), Jan Mlakar (QPR, Season Loan), Jayson Molumby (Millwall, Season Loan), Robert Sanchez (Rochdale, Season Loan), Percy Tau (Club Brugge, Season Loan), Christian Walton (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan), Ben White (Leeds United, Season Loan), Bruno (retired)



RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A Bobby Pereyra-fuelled canter into the season and a very, very cold trip to the Amex in which Ben Foster earned a point.


2018-19 2-0 0-0
2017-18 0-0
2014-15 1-1 2-0
2012-13 0-1
2011-12 1-0 2-2
2010-11 0-1
2005-06 1-1 1-0
2004-05 1-1 1-2
2002-03 1-0 0-4


Montoya              Dunk         Duffy             Bernardo
Jahanbaksh        Bissouma         Propper        Trossard

VERDICT: It’s true that for almost every football fan there’s your lot, and then there’s everyone else.  The differentiation between the everyone else’s is dancing on a pinhead really.  But as “other lots” go, there’s less to dislike about Brighton than most others in the top flight.  A great away trip, a welcoming ground (even when it’s bloody freezing, as last season).  One of those clubs who belong in the “The Likes Of…” box cited by your Leeds, Derby, Sheffield Wednesday fans as usurping the rightful places of Big Clubs in the Premier League.  This by virtue of being well run and having good football teams, as if that was a substitute for being, you know, Massive and that. Kindred spirits in that sense.

You’ve got to like the look of Graham Potter too.  Ken Sema’s boss at Östersunds of course, before that an unremarkable second tier left back (glancing back through the records reveals he played against us in our last trip to Stoke’s Victoria Ground in 1996 as GT’s return failed to pick up speed sufficiently quickly, the days when BSaD reports were just getting going sadly).

He’s the sort of bloke you want to do well at the sort of club you want to do well, with the caveat of this not being at our expense.  Following his remarkable and unconventional success in Sweden his star has risen very rapidly but he’s got a job on here.  Chris Hughton’s doughty, defensively solid side ended the season with three points and three goals from their final nine games, no win since beating Palace in early March.  Potter’s come in to Sort It Aht, but his side’s recruitment at the time of writing is perceived to have addressed areas of strength in bringing in centrebacks Matt Clarke (frequently mentioned in Watford dispatches in recent years) and Adam Webster (perhaps to replace Lewis Dunk) and winger Trossard.  Our recruitment has been similarly limited but we’re starting from a higher base and not overhauling our playing style.

The hope and expectation amongst Albion fans is that during the (as I write) three weeks before the opening game, problem positions will have been addressed – right back, central midfield, attack.  If so you may see those incoming names updated above.  But even if that proves the case it will be a huge ask of Potter to get his new charges sorted by our opening fixture.  Beyond that is anyone’s guess.  You’d hope mid table (just behind us, well ahead of Palace).  But this is a relegation scrap squad as I write.


End of Term Report – Part 6 14/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

27- Christian Kabasele

I have to confess to finding Christian Kabasele hugely frustrating.

This isn’t a long-held belief, an ongoing bugbear.  Indeed, I only realised the depths of my aggravation on sitting down to write this piece and thinking about what to say.  But when you look at it…  at 28, whilst the youngest of our senior centre-half options, he should be at the peak of his powers.  And he is brilliant.  Powerful, dominant, decisive, defiant.  Except…  and here’s the problem…  except when he isn’t.

And the “isn’t” bits are the problem.  Not in that they’re imperfections – heaven knows we’ve all got those.  It’s that they’re seemingly avoidable.  Just bloody brainfarts when he seems to lose focus and do something really stupid.  That’s not lack of ability, a deficiency in terms of acceleration or physical strength or touch that he’s never quite going to overcome.  That’s mental resilience, concentration…  the sending off against Bournemouth one obvious example this season, there have been others.  Avoidable.

Despite which…  to scroll back a few lines…  yes.  He’s great.  Most of the time.  But it’s the fact that it’s only most of the time that means he’s merely spent the last season swapping in and out with Mapps instead of nailing down a starting spot.  But he’s great.  Sorry, Christian. I’ve had a bad day…

Next Season:  With Britos gone and Prödl a strong candidate to follow Kabs will surely face new competition for a starting spot.  If he irons out his lapses in concentration he’ll see such challenges off with ease.  If he doesn’t, he won’t.

29- Étienne Capoue

And as the perfect follow up to that Kabasele piece, here’s Étienne Capoue.  A player who for several years of his Watford career was arguably even more frustrating in his inability to maintain his best form.  Not in quite the same way as Kabs…  his failing a fluctuating intensity rather than wayward concentration.  But frustrating in that when he was good he was so good….

And this season, finally, at the age of 30, we’ve seen Capoue deliver that form not just on a consistent basis but virtually unbroken all through the season.  His monstrous form seemed to develop a momentum all of its own, independent of the rest of the side.  At times when the rest of the team was wobbling Capoue himself seemed propelled along on the crest of a ferocious wave that he wasn’t in control of and was unable to resist even if he’d wanted to.

Part of it is finding his role in the midfield.  Sitting deeper, not breaking into the box as I’d mistakenly believed was his strongest card.  No longer the bloke who’s asked to do whatever job needs doing.  But an absolute monster of a defensive midfielder, simultaneously a rock for opponents to break on, a dynamo howling after possession and a nimble, elegant footballer.  Johnno, Hessie and Micah rolled into one.  For those that remember. Sigh.

Next Season:  Capoue professes to have had the best season of his life.  Can only hope that this continues… there are certainly plenty snapping at his heels if it fails to do so.

37- Roberto Pereyra

The thing with Roberto is that he looks the part.  The Matador gleam in his eye.  The ridiculously showy haircut. The disdainful look.  He’s exactly what an Argentine winger ought to look like.

And a lot of the time he plays like the classic Argentine midfielder in your head.  The times when he floats past opponents like they’re not there.  When he can dummy you off your seat from the other end of the pitch with a drop of the shoulder.  When he flicks the ball over Rui Patricio with the outside of his boot, yawns, stretches, scratches the back of his neck.

A consequence of this is that the times when this doesn’t happen contrast markedly.  The time when he’s merely digging in.  Providing an option. “Being normal”.  It looks… a bit lame in comparison.  Stands out for its mundaneness.

Which isn’t to say that he hasn’t had hot and cold streaks.  It’s rather that his cold streaks aren’t quite as cold as has been suggested in some quarters.  A side like ours doesn’t thrive in mid table with a passenger in midfield.

Next Season:  Persistent rumours of returns to Italy do seem to focus around Torino and that bundle of joy and light Walter Mazzarri.  You rather suspect that if there was truth in the “wanting to be back in Italy” thing it would be more than just Torino that the stories would be discussing.  Assuming he stays, the further competition for wide positions that has been suggested will be no bad thing, but his staying will be no bad thing either.

Javi Gracia

It’s difficult not to simply eulogise at this point, and eulogies do tend to be rather dull so I’ll try to restrain myself.  There’s just so little not to like about this man based on what we see of him.  Humility, but confidence.  A gentle manner, but steel in his eye.  Most of all, an ability to encourage the best out of his players and mould a likeable, effective team that made a mockery of the annual portents of our relegation.  Which will no doubt rock up again come August based on, you know, the cup final and everything.  And be wrong again.

It’s not been perfect, obviously.  The ability to mastermind eye-catching results against the bigger clubs foretold by a track record of such at Málaga was not in evidence for one thing;  three points against the big six, albeit a very fun three points, plus that rather cruelly unrewarded League Cup exit “away” at Spurs was all we managed.  The performances, it could be argued, were better than that though and until the wheels came off a bit at the very end of the season, only at Anfield had we been properly stuffed.

Meanwhile our record against everyone else was by some distance the best of the everyone else.  This isn’t to be taken lightly, even if we did slip into the bottom half at the end.  Much is made of Wolves’ fine record against the big six, “surely relatively straightforward for them to improve their record against the weaker sides, watch them push on”.  Wolves are a very decent team.  But the other side of that coin is that replicating the points they did earn from the same sources is a much taller challenge than our equivalent.

And then there’s the cup, of course.  And yes, we could have had a tougher draw.  Could have played Man City sooner, say.  But there’s a deceptiveness in how easy we made it look.  Winning at St James’ Park, say, is not to be taken for granted.  Standing up to a robust QPR side.  Having the edge over Palace.  Holding our collective nerve against Wolves.  The unfussy shuffling of the pack that made so much of it possible.

We’re lucky to have him.

Next Season:  Javi has made it clear that he’ll return to Spain at some point, but it seems fairly clear that this won’t happen this summer.  He’s linked with the Chelsea job repeatedly (to howls of complaint from those too daft to know a good thing when they see one).  In reality he’s only likely to be offered that job if it becomes too hamstrung by circumstances to attract a flashier name, in which case he’d be stupid to take it and probably wouldn’t.  This gem is surely ours to enjoy for a while yet.  Hurrah.

End of Term Report – Part 5 10/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

20- Domingos Quina

There was something slightly nostalgic about the doziness of the League Cup trip to Reading.  Not that we didn’t play well, not that our largely second string side didn’t acquit themselves but… the half-empty low-keyness of it all.  This is what football used to be like.

Then Domingos Quina pings one in from half a mile out and you’re stunned out of your reverie.  What the hell was that?  And such has been Quina’s Vicarage Road career in essence, from the much-told story involving him turning up with his agent an hour before the transfer deadline a year ago to pretty much every appearance since….  where did that come from.

He’s a terrific footballer.  Low centre of gravity, tight control, combative and assertive.  And that shot, obviously, showcased at Reading and also for Portugal’s U20 side. If he has occasionally gotten lost in a congested midfield then he’s just as often wriggled his way out of them.  There’s little doubt we’ve got a gem on our hands.

Next Season:  The only question really is quite what to do with him.  He’s a lot of fun, but he’s added competition to an already congested area of the squad and doesn’t quite have the physicality to operate as one of two at the moment.  Nor, as his arrival from West Ham demonstrates, is he one to sit around and bide his time.  Will be interesting to watch, in more ways than one.

21- Kiko Femenía

Another full back who doesn’t smile terribly often…  Kiko looks pretty much nailed on as first choice as it stands.  He’s still a natural wing-back playing full back for me, still much better bombing on that he is defending but he is great at the bombing on thing and that’s a fun thing to be.

Part of the reason that he won out over Janmaat in the end, I think, is the impact his presence has on the way the team plays.  Gerry makes a difference here but… we’re not over-blessed with pace in attacking positions, not really.  Kiko gives us that, makes us harder to defend against – even when pushing on from right back.

Next Season: With the persistent suggestion that Daryl Janmaat will return to the Netherlands and a couple of right backs in the list of players linked this summer, it’s possible that Kiko will have a new rival for his spot come August.  A great option to have, whether first or second choice.

25- Jose Holebas

It’s a story that doesn’t really need telling to anyone who’s been watching…  but what a turnaround in status under Javi Gracia.  In January 2018 he was mouthing off at supporters having got stick following a cup exit at Southampton.  A season and a half on he’s a cult hero, recognised as a vital component of the side but celebrated above and beyond that for his character, for the competitiveness that saw him fronting up to the supporters in the first place.

That competitiveness comes at a cost of course, specifically 35 yellow cards and two reds over the last three seasons.  Critically, as we know, one of those was rescinded.  Critically because for a club like Watford – and a player like Holebas – simply getting there, simply being there was an achievement, even if much of the subsequent coverage was too vapid to look beyond the scoreline.

Jose’s grumpiness is the stuff of legend, captured by the club in the marvellous “Antisocial Media” skit in the build up to the final.  Beyond that though, Jose is a winner, a ferocious left back, as good a crosser of the ball as we’ve had for a while, and one whose legend will live on once he’s departed.

Next Season:   He will, however, turn 35 in just over a fortnight.  As long as he can keep this level up he’ll be in the team… but you kind of suspect that Adam Masina might see a bit more action this term.

26- Ben Foster

Another thing that you won’t need telling, but given the tired old stuff about our revolving doors of players and head coaches it’s a source of quiet satisfaction that (if only for another few weeks perhaps) we have eight previous/current winners of the Player of the Season award in the squad.

So much for lack of stability, even if that’s not quite the whole story.  The whole story includes another Nice Thing, the fact that we’ve got to the point where we can attract previous winners Tom Cleverley and Ben Foster, winners of the award when they were Manchester United’s rough diamonds on loan for a season or two, to join us permanently.  That says something for us then as now;  neither would have returned had their first spells been miserable.

Ben Foster was in with a shout of a second such award twelve years after the first;  that he lost out to Étienne Capoue does nothing to downplay the magnificent season we’ve enjoyed from him, far more than we had any right to expect from someone who, by his own account, had fallen out of love with the game a little bit.  And it does matter that he’s such a good bloke.  You want him to do well for his own sake, as much as for ours, as betrayed by that episode at Huddersfield when his concern for a youngster struck by a stray ball went above and beyond professional norms.  As fine a (re) signing now as he seemed a year ago.

Next Season:  Ostensibly a bridging signing between Gomes and Dahlberg, interesting that we still seem to be in the market for a goalkeeper.  Nonetheless you’d expect that we have at least another season with Ben as first choice.  Hurrah for that.

End of Term Report – Part 4 06/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

15- Craig Cathcart

The thing about centre-back being a priority for strengthening is kinda beyond dispute.  Sometimes people get carried away though.  Sometimes the difficulty folk have in perceiving shades of grey, of more complex evaluation than merely “good” or “bad” raises its head.

Craig Cathcart is a very good centre back.  He’s our best centre back.  Best in the sense that he’s the calming force in the back four, the one who makes it all kind of hold together.  The one who always seems to find the ball drawn to his foot, who doesn’t have to dive into recovery tackles because he’s always in the right place to start with.  The one who, increasingly, has developed an aptitude for contributing at the other end too, that outrageous touch in the build up to the winner over Everton all the more extraordinary because it came from a centre back.  So… he’s not Virgil van Dijk.  But he’s still excellent, still a keeper.

He had a stinking couple of games towards the end of the season mind.  That howler against Southampton threw him entirely and he was poor at Stamford Bridge, a brief dip in form that was all the more remarkable for being so unusual.  Nonetheless, quietly a lynchpin of the side.

Next Season:  More of the same.  Please.

16- Abdoulaye Doucouré

The difficulty when you hit a high point, whether “you” is a team or a player, is that it’s treated as a new norm.  You put pressure on yourself straight away… something that might have required all of your fortitude – and perhaps a bit of luck, other circumstances being favourable – becomes treated as expectation rather than the achievement that it was.

Nonetheless it’s beyond dispute that Abdoulaye Doucouré, erstwhile Player of the Season and the swaggering magnificence of perhaps our greatest ever midfield engine isn’t being linked with the big guns quite as roundly this summer as he was last.  Arsenal are still sniffing around, allegedly, but you know, Arsenal.  Kinda downwardly mobile.  A year ago you’d have had him in any midfield in the country.

He’s been tremendous, nonetheless.  Dynamic but elegant, powerful but subtle, focused but languid.  A tremendous footballer.  But not one, this season, who screamed through the entire campaign without a dip in form.  Which… is fine.  Harsh to use his best ever season as a stick to beat him with.  Except…  well.  We know what he’s capable of.

Next Season:  In a competitive area of the pitch, pre-seasons for Cleverley and particularly Chalobah and the continuing development of Quina should keep Doucs on his toes.  It’s questionable whether we’ll get an offer of a magnitude that would compel us to sell him.

18- Andre Gray

Another popular line is that we desperately need to strengthen up front.  Problem with that of course is that everyone wants a striker, there aren’t many of them about and they cost a bomb, particularly if a top flight English club is the buyer.

Me?  I’m not convinced it’s a priority.  Our preferred approach seems to be to sign them young, certainly João Pedro, “Cucho” Hernandez and Filip Stuparević not to mention Isaac Success and Adalberto Peñaranda feels like a pool of names with high potential.  We could do with another senior forward, particularly if Stefano’s on his way.  But it could well come from this group rather than by bringing in an established name.

Andre Gray’s role at the club benefits from his transfer fee no longer being a stick to beat him with. Up to £18m is a huge transfer fee by our standards but not by the standards of the day, not for a striker like Andre Gray.  He’s a competitive option, a good partner for Troy if he starts, a snapping, snarling, mobile threat off the bench if he doesn’t.  His focus and application have seen the crowd warm to him this year.  So much the better.

Next Season:  A very decent option.

19- Will Hughes

It’s easy to forget how old you have suddenly become.  In my mind’s eye I’m still a young man, only left university a year or two ago.  This is bollocks, unfortunately, brought into sharp focus by the Twitter reaction to the club’s creative commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the play off win over Bolton, tweeting real time updates as if we were twenty years in the past.  Generalising hugely, those of us who remembered loved it.  Those who were too young didn’t so much.

Twitter is a miserable, joyless, spiteful place.  It’s odd that anyone should object to a bit of happiness but nonetheless… on reflection anyone younger than 30 (there are, I believe, such people, though I doubt any of them read this blog) won’t remember.  So they won’t remember Nicky Wright.

Will Hughes isn’t the same sort of player as Nicky Wright, not really.  Defter, cleverer.  Perhaps less intense, less explosive.  But he captures some of the spirit of Nicky Wright.  The wholeheartedness, the willingness to run yourself into the ground before leaving the pitch on 80 minutes barely able to walk.

It’s a fine thing, whether or not you remember Nicky Wright.

Next Season:  A real asset.  A joy.

End of Term Report – Part 3 03/06/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

10- Isaac Success

It’s easily forgotten, but Isaac had a strong start to the season.  He started seven out of eight Premier League games in a two month run from mid October to mid December, impressing as a lone striker in the wins at Molineux and against Huddersfield, and in the draw at Southampton.  He looked strong in Cup games too.

But there’s a fragility there… inappropriate word for such a big guy but… it’s as if he needs to have faith expressed in him via team selection to let rip.  He impressed at Manchester City too but that was his only League start in 2019 and coming off the bench there have been too many ineffectual perfomances, performances where you want him to bully and impose himself and he’s struggled to do so.

There’s a very very good player in there, and we catch glimpses of him occasionally – the deft touch to set up a consolation goal at Old Trafford one such example.  We just need to see them a little more often.

Next Season:  Competition for attacking positions will be more intense next season, with Peñaranda having a pre-season behind him and a number of the foreign-based legion of young forwards possibly coming into consideration.  Isaac will turn 24 during the season, not a kid any more.  Now or never, you suspect.

11- Adam Masina

Adam Masina is decent.    He’s had some really good games (Old Trafford) and some less good ones (Anfield).  He kicks the ball really hard, and I like that.  He’s not nearly aggressive enough for such a big guy, doesn’t throw his weight around.  Less keen on that.

He’s been as good as we’ve needed him to be, simply because his most significant impact has been on the performances of our first choice left back.  Surely no coincidence that for the first time since Nathan Aké was keeping him out three years ago José has serious competition and has put in his best season in a yellow shirt.

Next Season:  We’re going to need to see Adam’s A-game more regularly if he’s the long term replacement for Holebas who, 35 later this month, is ten years his senior.  We’ve been able to afford him an easing in season, adapting to a new country isn’t trivial.  Let’s hope he can crack on.

12- Ken Sema

There’s a real skill to picking up squad players.  Ability is important, certainly.  Mentality, too though.  You want someone who is going to be on it, who’s going to push for involvement, who’s not going to throw a paddy and disrupt the dressing room because they’re behind Hughes/Pereyra/Deulofeu in the pecking order but who is going to, at the very least, “do a job” as needed.

And Kenzema has done that.  His performances, his impact has sometimes been criticised but… he’s been a bit part player for the most part, in and out of the side.  Difficult to get a run of form going when you’re doing that job and that’s probably his biggest problem.  Again, there’s a player in there and we’ve seen frequent glimpses… Bournemouth away springs to mind but elsewhere too.  Notably we’ve only lost one game that he’s started – that the competitive defeat to Chelsea on Boxing Day – whilst of his sub appearances the only defeats came versus Liverpool and Arsenal, where he played less than ten minutes in total.

You can argue that we only choose to use him in lower risk situations, the stats are inherently biased.  Nonetheless, he’s been part of a successful side on a regular basis, and invariably with a physicality and enthusiasm that suggests there’s more to come.

Next Season:  Rather depends on what Ken wants.  He’s perfectly capable of doing the regular stand-in job that he’s done this season but is unlikely – barring injury disasters – to get the sustained run that he probably needs to show us whether he can push on.

14- Nathaniel Chalobah

There aren’t many players who two injury-hit seasons after signing, two seasons that for various reasons have only afforded eight League starts, would still be talked about in reverential terms.  There aren’t, admittedly, many such signings who would have come in with the benefit of a startlingly precocious loan season as a teenager five years earlier.

Nonetheless, it’s more than that.  It’s the memory of Nate’s extraordinary start to last season, before the freak knee injury struck.  The outrageous ability to snap into a yard of space and prize a counterattack, the control like silk.  There’s the faith shown in him by Gareth Southgate;  a token outing against Spain, and an expensive one, but a statement.  Echoed by Troy Deeney late this season, by Javí Gracia after Chalobah’s gently encouraging outing at Stamford Bridge – the latter countering concerns that the boss didn’t fancy him, Chalobah having seemingly slipped behind Domingos Quina in the ferocious competition for midfield places earlier in the season.

It’s also the player’s maturity.  OK, he’ll be 25 before the end of the year, not the sixteen year-old kid we signed on loan in 2012.  Nonetheless.  Intelligent.  Calm.  Measured.  “Can’t complain while Doucs and Caps are playing so well” was the gist of his comment on his limited game time later in the season.

Next Season:  Chalobah is special.  He needs a proper pre-season, and chance to prove it.  If he gets both he will surely put pressure even on our exalted first choice pairing.

End of Term Report – Part 2 30/05/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

6- Adrian Mariappa

There’s a popular line of argument which goes something along the lines of “if Aidy Mariappa’s our first choice centre back, there’s something wrong”.  It was expressed vociferously and at some length in a pub in Brighton. Not by me. You know who you are. There’s the curio about Mapps and Cathcart having been our centre back partnership ten years ago against Scunthorpe in the second tier and so surely there’s a problem, how can they still be our first choice pairing in the top flight?  This misses several points of course, principally that they were then 23 and 20 respectively, one of them on loan from Manchester United, the other already having captained the side and embarking on his record-breaking run of consecutive starts.  They were good young defenders then, they’re good defenders now with ten years more experience.

Nonetheless.  If there’s an area of the side that needs re-enforcing…  bearing in mind that we had the oldest side in the Premier League last season and all four of our five senior centre backs were over 30 (the other, Christian Kabasele, a youngster at 28)… it’s the middle of the defence.

You’d still have Mapps tho.  You’d always have Mapps, as an option.  Versatile, a leader, he rejoined the club nominally sixth choice and worked his way up… but isn’t one who’d throw a paddy about not starting. Defensively he’s one of those who’s better when he’s busy, better when he doesn’t have time to think.  A David James of his generation.  Kinda.  But nonetheless. A Watford legend.

Next Season:  There or thereabouts, thirteen years after his Premier League debut.

7- Gerard Deulofeu

I think I’ve probably been unfair on Gerard Deulofeu.

After all, he’s our leading scorer despite only kind of being a striker but not really.  He’s extravagantly talented, and a big game player – that semi final performance was the stuff of legend.  Frighteningly quick but… more than that.  Gone are the days when we couldn’t attract or retain players that were quick and something else useful too.

Then there’s the fact that he’s here at all.  This is a guy who was brought up in the rare surroundings of Barcelona, who has played and impressed for Milan.  OK, so he’s slummed it at Everton for a bit but… nonetheless.  This isn’t the sort of player we should expect to be signing for Watford.  That he chose to, that he wanted to play for us rather than, probably, not play for Barcelona say speaks volumes for his lack of pretension and level headedness.

So what’s the problem?  Perhaps it’s years of conditioning to appreciate the grafter, the trier.  And it’s not that Gerry doesn’t try, he’s not lazy.  But he has been guilty of not raising his game for every encounter.

Then there’s quite what you do with him.  He’s too good not to be involved but… the end product isn’t quite there as a winger despite his pace, and yet he’s not really a striker either.  In a sense he reminds you of Tommy Smith – albeit of a more refined standard – in that Smith was never obviously one or the other for different reasons.

Next Season:  Such is his ability that clubs with deeper pockets would be remiss not to be testing the water.  That’s why there are four years left on his contract (well done Gino/Scott.  Again.).  Meanwhile, just as Smith became a better player as he got older and cleverer there are signs of the same from Gerry.  He’s a privilege for as long as we have him.

8- Tom Cleverley

It was always going to be a tough season for Tom.  All but a year out through injury is enough on its own… then you’ve got to come back into a high intensity area of the team, an area where we are arguably most overladen with talent and work your way back into contention despite lack of pre-season, despite a year’s rustiness.

Despite which – and bearing in mind that for obvious reasons, as well as an unfortunate calf injury late on, he only started four Premier League games – he did well.  Always a force for good – ten minutes just calming everything down against Everton case in point – the undoubted highlight was that special winner at Selhurst Park in a fixture that had seen him sent off the previous season.

Next Season:   On the back of a pre-season, and despite the competition in the middle of the park, you’d hope and expect to see a lot more of Tom.  Like Ben Foster and Aidy Mariappa, old hands brought back to the club since promotion, he’s a leader, a bloke you root for, and a good guy to have around. The only concern is whether the need to create space for Chalobah, Quina, Wilmot might count against him… nonetheless, you’d be loathe to give hm up.

9- Troy Deeney

Kevin Affleck has made this point more eloquently than I could… but that penalty.  That penalty.  Goal of the Season for me, despite the outrageous impudence that preceded it and the flowing, cathartic, decisive finish that was to follow.  That penalty.  So much that is good about Troy Deeney in the space of five minutes… showing for something, fighting for something and then… leadership.  Single mindedness.  Just breathtaking nerve, even in hindsight, even knowing how it would shake up.  Then…  the ability to kick the ball really hard and celebrate like your head’s going to explode.

There are less good things, obvs.  The whole Arsenal thing is getting a little bit tiresome, the occasional inability to contain his intensity, the occasional silly decision.

Not the candour.  Not the saying what he thinks thing.  Heaven knows if any of us said everything we thought we’d be in trouble, without being under the spotlight like Troy but… you can’t take that out of him and still have Troy.  And frankly I’d rather have Troy.

Next Season:  In what is surely a testimonial season (?) Troy will take some shifting.  He’s not the best player in the team, but as the miserable run without him demonstrated he’s the least disposable.

End of Term Report – Part 1 27/05/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- Heurelho Gomes

Heurelho Gomes, baby.

I enjoy the routine of the twice-weekly general football podcasts.  The tendency of the one to cover the same anecdotes and curios as the other can get a bit wearing, but they pass the time.

Aggravating, though, how little attention they pay.  Really.  Shouldn’t be a surprise perhaps but… you know.  We’ve been in the top flight for four years, you’d hope that we’re worth more than a cursory glance.  One of the two managed to preview the Cup Final for a good ten minutes whilst mentioning the team that weren’t City only once.

So Heurelho Gomes still wears the mantle awarded during the tail end of his first team career at Spurs nearly eight years ago, still a slight intake of breath before mentioning his name.  This despite his since being part of a promotion-winning side, a squad that is about to go into its fifth season in the top flight, winning Player of the Season in that first, unlikeliest mid-table campaign. All of this in the shadow of his White Hart Lane career.

Whatever.  Gomes has been tremendous during his time at Vicarage Road, even if not enough people have been paying attention.  What looks likely to prove his final season has seen him step backwards into a backup/cup ties role.  It speaks volumes for him that not only has he done so with good grace, but he has clearly been hugely supportive of the man signed to take his place in what has been a tightly-knit goalkeeping sub-team of three.

Next Season:  It would be a shame if Gomes’ career was concluded with a 6-0 mauling in the Cup Final, and the club clearly hope to persuade him to stay on… even if the number of goalkeepers in The List suggests that we’re not counting on succeeding.

2- Daryl Janmaat

It seems slightly peculiar that not so long ago right back was deemed a problem position.  That we were convinced that Daryl was a wingback, that he wasn’t solid enough to be a proper defender.

Now… you might consider right back as a position where we could realistically upgrade but nonetheless, the real question is how we’ve managed to get away with keeping Daryl and Kiko in tandem for so long. Both probably better going forward, Daryl’s approach is the rhinoceros to Kiko’s fleet sidewinder… but similarly capable options in defence, the days when Daryl wasn’t solid enough all but forgotten.

Nonetheless, it’s been clear as the season has progressed that Daryl is the second in line of the two as it stands. Unreasonable to expect him to be happy at much especially since, like his teammate on the other side of the defence, he rarely looks happy about anything much.

Next Season:  Stories throughout the season have had Daryl first suggesting that he’d want to return to Feyenoord “at some stage”, and then that he’d be heading back this summer.  The cup final, in which he was confined to the sub’s bench, may have been a tipping point.

3- Miguel Britos

The funny thing about Miguel is that he’s always been on the way out.  Sent off on his debut against Preston three and a half years ago, a Uruguayan centre half is certainly a reputation to play down…  then the violent assault on Anthony Knockaert, the absolute skinning he took at Anfield in the stuffing-before-last up there.  Those are probably the things that stand out if you saw them live.

The latter particularly harsh of course.  Plenty of defenders have been skinned at Anfield without going into the game on the back of four months out of the side.  And yet if opinion didn’t turn against Britos he was certainly relegated to the role of backup pretty damn sharpish, despite what had been a solid enough career as a left-sided option to that point.

To the extent that Miguel’s thoroughly competent performances in his outings this season were viewed with some surprise… and indeed, made you wonder whether he’d perhaps been too quickly discarded.  Injuries have contributed, but he has made only three League starts since getting injured in the 3-0 win at Newcastle in November 2017: away to Liverpool, City and United, which is hardly an easy brief.  Otherwise he excelled in three away trips in the cup, each of which yielding a clean sheet and reminded you how brutally but unflashily effective he has been for much of his senior Watford career.

Next Season:  Which would now seem to be over, with Miguel’s contract about to end and him having been quoted as expressing a desire to return to Uruguay for family barbecues.  Which paints a picture of a regular down-to-earth guy;  best of luck to him.  It’s probably the right time, but we’re still the weaker for his departure.

5- Sebastian Prödl

Completing the opening quartet is another who could conceivably be on his way out.  It’s not his age – Seb will turn 32 over the summer.  It’s probably not the knee injury either, much as that seems to have kept him out for most of the season (or not, depending on who you believe) – his senior outings this term the win at Reading, plus 13 aborted minutes at Molineux, this in October his last action of any kind.

The real problem with Seb is that, much as he’s a strong centre-half he’s not much bloody use to you unless he’s a first choice.  Whilst he’s had some very strong spells at Vicarage Road – indeed, a very strong 2016/17 that saw him named Player of the Season – these very strong spells have exclusively been when he’s established in the side.  Almost without exception he’s looked a cumbersome mess coming off the bench, or stepping in after a long spell out.  As such, and pending any changes over the summer, it seems unlikely that he’ll work his way back into contention.

Next Season:  Not difficult to see Seb returning either to Austria or the Bundesliga over the summer.

Helping Hands 2018/2019 23/05/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

In the wake of Saturday it doesn’t hurt to look back on what has been a very decent season by any reasonable standards.  As in the previous eleven years of this article it’s an entirely selfish pursuit;  I enjoy watching all the goals again and compiling it, you probably know this stuff already if it’s your Sort Of Thing.  Nonetheless…  pausing only briefly to reiterate the generous definitions that I apply to an “assist” (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) we continue….

The first name to pick out is of course the one at the top of the table, the magificent José Holebas.  Whilst the quality of our set piece deliveries is occasionally grumbled about there’s little doubt that a left back who can provide seven assists, “proper” assists mind… crosses and that…  not to mention three goals, a lot of charging up and down the flank like a loon and a whole load of yellow cards at the age of 34 is a fine, fine thing.

Just behind him Abdoulaye Doucouré is at a healthy 6, up from only 3 last season.  Significant, perhaps, that last season’s 3 came at the very end of the campaign under Javi Gracia, who has tended to field Capoue rather than Doucouré as the deeper sitting of the two central midfielders.

Gerard Deulofeu comes in at 5 having missed the first two and a half months of the season, despite which three of the five came before the turn of the year. Also on five Roberto Pereyra; all but one of his assists (and all of his goals) came in 2018 but while his goals were largely at Vicarage Road, all but one of his assists came away from home.

Further down the list, Étienne Capoue had his best assist tally of his four seasons at Vicarage Road despite holding down a deeper midfield role; his three assists compare to four in his first three seasons here.  Kiko Femenía meanwhile yielded a slightly disappointing two after none last year, a slightly disappointing return for his furious overlapping.

Otherwise, most notable are curios in the appearance list.  It astonishes me that Stefano Okaka made as many as three sub appearances before his return to Italy.  Tom Cleverley had his injury problems, but it’s still a little startling that he made fewer starts than Domingos Quina, similarly that backup left back Adam Masina managed practically as many starts as first teamer Andre Gray.

Will return soon with the End of Term Report.  Enjoy the summer…


Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Holebas 7 31+1 3 BHA (H), BHA (H), TOT (H), TOT (H), CHE (H), CPA (A), TOT (A)
Doucouré 6 37+3 5 BUR (A), MAU (H), WOL (A), WOL (A), CAR (H), CAR (A)
Deulofeu 5 28+5 12 SOT (A), MAC (H), CAR (H), CAR (A), LEI (H)
Pereyra 5 36+0 6 EVE (A), EVE (A), WHU (A), WHU (A), CPA (H – FAC)
Hughes 5 37+3 3 FUL (A), NEW (A – FAC), EVE (H), CAR (A), FUL (H)
Deeney 4 32+5 11 BUR (A), CAR (A), LEI (H), MAC (A)
Sema 3 12+10 1 CAR (H), BOU (A), WOK (A – FAC)
Masina 3 15+5 0 REA (A – LC), HUD (H), WOK (A – FAC)
Gray 3 16+18 9 FUL (H), FUL (H), WOL (N – FAC)
Capoue 3 37+2 4 CPA (H), HUD (H), CAR (A)
Janmaat 2 20+2 0 CPA (H), SOU (H)
Femenía 2 27+7 1 TOT (A – LC), HUD (H)
Cleverley 1 6+11 1 QPR (A – FAC)
Quina 1 7+6 2 NEW (A – FAC)
Success 1 13+22 4 MAU (A)
Mariappa 1 25+7 0 TOT (A – LC)
Cathcart 1 40+1 3 CP (H – FAC)
Okaka 0 0+3 0
Peñaranda 0 1+1 0
Prödl 0 1+1 0
Navarro 0 3+2 0
Wilmot 0 4+2 0
Britos 0 5+1 0
Chalobah 0 7+6 0
Gomes 0 8 0
Kabasele 0 20+3 0
Foster 0 38 0

Check out the 2017-18, 2016-172015-162014-152013-142012-132011-12, 2010-112009-102008-09 and 2007-08 equivalents by clicking on the links.

The List 2019. 21/05/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

The List.  Your summer record of players linked with the Hornets since the close of the January window, a list that will be kept up to date throughout the summer so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.  Previous windows’ lists linked at foot of article.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Running Total: 75


Yacine Brahimi (Porto)*                                  – joined Al-Rayyan
Marcus Thuram (Guingamp)*             – joined Borussia Mönchengladbach
Enock Kwateng (Nantes)                                      – joined Bordeaux
Gustavo (Corinthians)
Lincoln (Flamengo)
Martinelli (Ituaro)                                                 – joined Arsenal
Gonçalo Cardoso (Boavista)                                – joined West Ham
Robert Skov (Copenhagen)                                – joined Hoffenheim
Juan Cuadrado (Juventus)
Noel Törnqvist (Halmia)
Josh King (Bournemouth)
Robin Olsen (Roma)
Harvey White (QPR)                                                  – SIGNED
Vincenzo Grifo (Hoffenheim)
Marko Malenica (Osijek)
Joe Allen (Stoke)
Pawel Bochniewicz (Udinese)
Birger Verstraete (Gent)                                         – joined Köln
Mady Camara (Olympiacos)
Sergi Enrich (Eibar)

Jack Butland (Stoke City)
Pape Gueye (Le Havre)
Joe Lolley (Nottingham Forest)
Gian Marco Ferrari (Sassuolo)
Pedro Rebocho (Guingamp)
Kenny Lala (Strasbourg)
Rémi Oudin (Reims)
Victor Osimhen (Charleroi)                                     – joined Lille
Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield)                          – joined Brighton on loan
Cristian Zapáta (Milan)*                                           – joined Genoa
Matt Clarke (Portsmouth)*                                      – joined Brighton
Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)                                 – joined Club Brugge
Juanpe Ramírez (Girona)
Dorukhan Toköz (Beşiktaş)
Cristian Pavón (Boca Juniors)                        – joined LA Galaxy on loan
Ismaïla Sarr (Rennes)*                                                   – SIGNED
Miloš Veljković (Werder Bremen)
Marcus Tavernier (Middlesbrough)
Lebo Mothiba (Strasbourg)
Guillermo Ochoa (Standard Liège)                          – joined América
Alhassan Yusuf (IFK Göteborg)
William Saliba (Saint Étienne)                                 – joined Arsenal
James Léa-Siliki (Rennes)
Jean-Clair Todibo (Barcelona)
Jean-Phillippe Mateta (FSV Mainz)
Amadou Diawara (Napoli)                                     – joined Roma
Grégoire Defrel (AS Roma)*
Nathan Gassama (Nantes)
Adam Webster (Bristol City)                                    – joined Brighton
Craig Dawson (West Brom)*                                      – SIGNED
Terence Kongolo (Huddersfield)
Gaston Pereiro (PSV)
Kim Min-Jae (Beijing Gouan)*
Anthony Briancon (Nîmes)
Tom Heaton (Burnley)*                                         – joined Aston Villa
Emmanuel Adebayor (Free Agent)
Asmir Begović (Bournemouth)*
Denis Vavro (Copenhagen)                                   – joined Lazio
Allan Saint-Maximin (Nice)*                               – joined Newcastle
Mbwana Samatta (Genk)
Steve Mounié (Huddersfield Town)*
Leandro Paiva (Neuchâtel Xamax)
Trézéguet (Kasımpaşa)*                                   – joined Aston Villa
Isaac Hayden (Newcastle)
Joseph Hungbo (Unattached)                                 – SIGNED
Bastos (Lazio)
Pedro Porro (Girona)                                       – joined Man City
Mateus Uribe (América)                                     – joined Porto
Djene Dakonam (Getafe)
Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux)
Haissem Hassan (Châteauroux)
Steven Bergwijn (PSV)
Genki Haraguchi (Hannover 96)
Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha Berlin)
Danny Rose (Tottenham)

Roberto Pereyra (Torino*, Milan, Atlético Madrid)
Gerard Deulofeu (Milan*, Dortmund, Napoli, Roma)
Tommie Hoban (Aberdeen)                                          – Released
Daniel Bachmann (Rangers, VfB Stuttgart, Hannover 96, Derby County)
Jerome Sinclair (Oxford United)                             – joined Venlo on loan
Andre Gray (Rangers)
Dodi Lukebakio (Schalke, RB Leipzig, Lyon, Düsseldorf, Lille, Mönchengladbach, Dortmund, Arsenal, Hertha Berlin)
.                                                                             – joined Hertha Berlin
Alex Jakubiak (Bristol Rovers)                        – joined Gillingham on loan
Tom Leighton (Celtic)                                                – Released
Abdoulaye Doucouré (Arsenal*, Paris St Germain*, Tottenham*, Everton*)
Daryl Janmaat (Feyenoord)
Imaad Sankoh (Udinese)
Luis Suárez (Real Zaragoza, Cadiz, Gijon, Mallorca, Almería)
Marvin Zeegelaar (Aris, Udinese)
Christian Kabasele (Fenerbahçe, Leicester)
Pervis Estupiñán (Osasuna)                             – joined Osasuna on loan
Stefano Okaka (Galatasaray)
Michael Folivi (AFC Wimbledon)                – joined AFC Wimbledon on loan
Adalberto Peñaranda (Sivasspor)
Adam Masina (Torino)
Cucho Hernández (Valladolid, Real Betis, Espanyol)
Nathaniel Chalobah (Norwich, Sheffield United)

2019 January
2018 Summer January
2017 Summer January
2016 Summer January
2015 Summer

Manchester City 6 Watford 0 (18/05/2019) 19/05/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Amongst the early morning deluge of excited messages, my brother’s resonated the most.  9:30 am, “I’m here!  Erm… would anyone like a drink? (Got a bit excited and left Leeds at 4)”.  The rest of us weren’t due to be at the Railway in West Hampstead for another three and a half hours.

By which time it was rammed and unlike on our previous visit a month ago spillage onto surrounding pavements was not permitted, the first sign that Things Might Not Go Well.  It was cramped and uncomfortable, consistent with the prevailing nervous anxiety borne of anticipation of what could happen and fear of what might a few hours later.

But there’s people.  Some in sky blue, most in yellow. Strangers to share a snatched conversation, familiar people, people you’ve not seen for a while, for years, looming out of the past and sharing a word, smiling and pumping fists and then disappearing again.  Wembley Way (strictly, “The Olympic Way”), when we get there, is the same but more so.

The evangelical gentleman who looks like something from the Life of Brian, is still there hanging optimistically over a railing as he was prior to the semi final.  There’s more security here too;  more safety cordons, checks of tickets and bags that hadn’t been a complication last time and are rendered problematic by both the dissipation of our party (with me still in nervous custody of many tickets) and the Cup Final Ice Creams that Daughters 1 and 2 have demanded and which are still occupying hand space as we try to turn a carrier bag full of waterproofs into something not involving a carrier bag. Also, there’s Fuzz…

…who has dressed for the occasion and made relatively slow progress in consequence with multiple requests for selfies and media intrusion.  Next time Fuzz, get an agent.

As we make our way around the right hand side of the stadium, there’s no escaping that this is becoming rather familiar.  In part down to our (still) newly elevated status, in part due to Spurs, and in very large part due to the fact that the semi was played here too…  an exploitative nonsense that has almost become accepted and slipped behind other exploitative nonsense in the grand scheme of things.  On the subject of which, and whilst recognising that it can be painfully, lazily, stupidly easy to blame the woes of the world on a remote and intangible power-wielding entity (heaven knows…), it would be remiss not to acknowledge the disgraceful ticket prices.  Shameful.  It’s the Cup Final… it’s supposed to be a big deal, fine.  Demand is high, fine.  But that the girls’ season tickets cost a comparable amount to their cup final tickets for very decent but far from top priced seats speaks volumes about the organisational body’s sense of priorities (and that of our club, fair play to them).

2-  Abide with Me.  Anthem.  We’re at the front of the top tier, at “right back” in the first half.  As an aside, I’m advised that Z-cars got a couple of airings – during which time I was attending to assorted requirements including £2.50 for a half-litre bottle of water poured into a flimsy plastic pint glass, twice – but hurrah for that (Z-cars, not the exorbitant water).

And then, the football.

We knew it was a tall order.  No, we didn’t need to be better than Manchester City (budgets, payroll, blah blah), just to beat them on the day.  Nonetheless a tall order which, were it to be realised would need the little things to go for us.  So… most obviously, Pereyra’s chance.  We’ve started 4-5-1 and we look concentrated and organised…  yes, City are coming at us like a wave from the off but their attacks are breaking on the rocks of our defence, particularly the excellent Mariappa, and they begin to look a bit stodgy and immobile.  And then suddenly we get a break and Gerry’s off, and City are scrambling and – let’s not lose sight of this in the cloud of what’s to follow – we may not be in the same league as City but we’re still a bloody good side.  This is a devastating counter-attack, supremely executed as Pereyra has found space in the middle and Deulofeu finds him superbly.  And… there’s Ederson, out like a train.  We needed him to be asleep.  Or… we needed Pereyra to somehow flick the ball over the advancing keeper – that he didn’t is no failing, not really… it was a chance denied, not wasted, but we were going to need that to go for us.  We knew it at the time, much more so later as Guardiola would candidly acknowledge.  We score that, it’s a different game.

Then the penalty shout.  No, I don’t think it was a penalty either but it could have been, VAR or no VAR.  Kompany’s turning away from the ball but it’s not quite ball to hand.  It could plausibly have been given.  It wasn’t.  That’s another one we needed to go for us.  Doucs knows and reacts accordingly, you wonder whether this train of thought is going through the players’ heads too.

And then the opening goal.  No, not offside.  Felt it, felt like it might have been, wasn’t.  Yet another example of City’s merciless timing… right on the edge, pushing it to the limit, but onside.  And there’s a little push by Silva on Kiko – who should already have done better in an aerial contest – but nonetheless, a little push.  It’s critical, Kiko’s off balance briefly and doesn’t have time to recover.  But you don’t get those, certainly not today.

3- The first possible criticism is the apparent lack of aggression.  If you’re the underdog, if you’re in this situation then you surely want to give it some welly.  To get stuck in, to win the 50/50s.  Lack of physical competitiveness has rarely been a criticism levelled at this Watford side but… it is here.  As we rock on our heels at a second goal, expertly crafted and cruelly on top of the first it’s only Gerard Deulofeu of all people who’s getting stuck in… and briefly you’d really rather he didn’t as his waspish energy is frustrated, badly directed and precarious.

In balance, however…  that criticism has to come with caveats.  There was a clear game plan for one thing, a good one.  Sit deep, keep your shape, smother.  Jumping into tackles looks good but players with feet this quick will exploit the holes you leave behind when the challenge is dodged by a quick pass or slight of foot.  Hell, look at what happens later in the game when we push on a bit.  So…  yes.  You’d have hoped for more bullying.  More doing something to upset City.  But let’s not pretend that this was a magic bullet, that but for this everything would have been different.  There was a reason for us setting up as we did – good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes, least of all against this lot.  The half ends with a show of defiance from the wonderful Holebas, who is robbed when trying to play an inswinging cross from the right and briefly we’re in trouble again… until he snarls into a challenge to critically reclaim possession having hared a third of the length of the pitch.  We’re rallied by this.  In my pocket however, misplaced during the cordon complications described earlier, the lucky chocolate has all melted.

4- The other possible criticism is that we played it too open in the second period.  That by moving from 4-5-1 to, effectively, 4-3-3 we surrendered the initiative to City, that we made it too easy for them to rip us apart on the counterattack which they promptly did.

Again, I’ve got some sympathy with the decision.  Yes, it was high risk and no, it patently didn’t work.  But for fifteen minutes of the second half we were on top, the more assertive side.  Will Hughes is scurrying everywhere, Gerry is making great sweeping runs from right to left across the face of the defence who scatter like ninepins, Troy is suddenly winning every aerial challenge.  Slightly dazed, someone whispers that City’s defence really isn’t very good, is it?  You know, good at defending?  Which sounds perverse, but… frankly they don’t need to be very good.  You’ve got to get the ball first for one thing, then you’ve got to hold onto it under the manic midfield pressing.  But if you get past that lot… they’re fallible.  Genuinely fallible.  And this is why going on the front foot is the only option.  Against perhaps any other side you’d say “look, 2-0 and we’re not out of it.  Keep it tight, grab a goal, game on”.  Here, though… you rather fancy that it was a choice between losing 3-0 and the outside possibility of tipping the balance with a high risk of things going very wrong.  And we know what happened.  But I’m pretty comfortable with the decision, still…  it’s still 2-0 after an hour and we’ve made City look uncomfortable.

4- And then they score again.  And it’s de Bruyne, out of nothing, on the break.  And it’s cruel, and what follows feels kind of inevitable, so we’ll draw a curtain over it.

Except.  Except.  Except that at 5-0, something remarkable happens.  We’ve been loud, in general, and in defiance of the scoreline.  Louder than a month ago, louder than City, the grim memory of the Palace play off now surely dismissed.  Because at 5-0 the songs start to thunder and the flags start to wave  and suddenly the away end is a torrent of yellow and red as flags get frantically waved.  I destroy two, the second of which floats down to the posh seats below as it detaches from its pole. It’s breathtaking and emotional.  All clubs boast that they have “the best support”… I’ve got a Sheffield Wednesday supporting mate who genuinely believes that the Owls’ nineteen-year absence from the top flight is the result of a conspiracy borne of the establishment’s fear of the insurmountable advantage offered by the Hillsborough crowd.

But this isn’t about “best”.  This isn’t about anyone else.  This is about pride in who and what we are, pride in what the team has achieved relative to precedent and expectation, and – most of all – about the fact that the result of one game doesn’t affect that.  As per the preview piece winning is important, but it’s very far from everything.  It’s not even the most important thing.

Digressing slightly, the same goes for Manchester City.  Better informed people than me have written extensively on the questionable source of City’s largesse.  The morality of it, the cleanliness of it, the within-the-rulesness of it.  And it’s clear that many City supporters have reacted incredibly defensively to this which… is wrong, in itself.  You should at least be able to question things objectively.  But the critical detail is in what it is that you actually support.  If some malevolent psychotic took over Watford in the future… not a Bassini, someone far far worse…  you would be uncomfortable with it, you would withdraw your custom in extremis.  But…  you’d still believe in that thing, that whatever-it-is that you support which remains unsullied by association with idiots or crooks.  The same goes for City, irrespective of what you believe of their ownership.  Their fans might revel in the magnificence of the team, but independent of that they believe in a Thing, their Thing.  Quite right too.  It transpires (see below) that the defiance in the Watford end, which continues unabated throughout the sixth goal, is met with a standing ovation from the Sky Blue end.  Well done everyone, the 1881 not least.

5- It takes bloody ages to get out.  I miss our medals, and the trophy, as daughter 2 has an urgent requirement… karma has long since left the building, but nonetheless she’s pretty desperate.  A fair old slog later we’re getting on a Thameslink train at West Hampstead in need of somewhere for a quiet, brief sulk.

So being greeted by loud cheers from three beered-up fifty-something Luton fans on the adjacent table was something that we could have done without.  In the event it could have gone far worse… one of them even passed on the Cup Final programme that he’d acquired from somewhere to daughter 2, whilst awkwardly warning me to erase the expletives that adorned the yellow-and-black side of the cover.  They exited at Luton Airport Parkway, and we finally got our quiet sulk.

But really…  is there that much to sulk about?  Being Watford’s a fine thing, even if we did get humped in the Cup Final.  We’re stable, secure.  Mid-table in the top flight of all things, going into our fifth consecutive season at the top table.

And “another 35 years”?  That kind of logic only holds any water if you believe this to be a random process.  Like… the roll of a dice, the toss of a coin.  A chance event determined only by probability.  That’s not reality, our relative success, undoubted success compared to our historical peers, isn’t random… it’s based on the decisions and the actions of all sorts of very good, very competent people.  All of these things change the odds, affect the outcome.

We didn’t win this time.  Next time might be different, and it might be soon.

Enjoy the summer.


Gomes 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 4, *Hughes 4*, Doucouré 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 3
Subs: Success (for Pereyra, 66) 3, Gray (for Deulofeu, 66) 2, Cleverley (for Hughes, 73) 2, Janmaat, Masina, Kabasele, Foster