jump to navigation

End of Term Report Part 7 11/06/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

30- Orestis Karnezis

Orestis Karnezis is an experienced goalkeeper.   He’s played over 100 games in Serie A for Udinese, and been capped 49 times by Greece including all four of the national side’s games at the World Cup Finals four years ago.  His Watford career has not been unremarkable, beginning as it did with a cataclysmic collapse at Goodison and proceeding, two months later, with Karnezis replacing the initially injured Heurelho Gomes for the last three months of the season up until the final day.  In the bulk of his performances – following the disaster at Everton – Karnezis looked extremely competent,  unflashy, occasionally outstanding.  A more than adequate performance by a loan signing and nominally a back-up keeper.

And yet.  And yet…  he’s a bit like the contractor in the office who nobody bothered to introduce you to.  You nod as you pass each other in the corridor but he leaves no lasting impression and I doubt many Watford fans would recognise him if they passed him in the street.

Next Season:  …and to be fair, the professional indifference seems to be mutual, with Karnezis reportedly courting a move back to his native Greece.  Good luck to him, whoever he was.

33- Stefano Okaka

A very odd season for Stefano Okaka, who scored what was to be his only goal of the campaign with a fine header eight minutes into it and was immediately dropped as Marco Silva ummed and ahhed between Troy and Andre Gray.  Okaka was afforded one minute (plus injury time) in the bedlam at Goodison Park over the next four months and whilst used more frequently by Javi Gracia he nonetheless only started three games throughout the campaign.

The problem with Stefano is not that there are things that he’s not good at.  The same is true of all strikers to varying degrees.  The problem is that he doesn’t deliver on the things he IS good at with anything like sufficient reliability.  So… you want him to be roughing people up, to be charging after possession, to be attacking the near post and he has done all of these things but he has also all too regularly not done all of these things and a mardy so-and-so who isn’t delivering is far less endearing than one who is.

Next Season:   Perhaps a year later than might have been ideal for all concerned, it seems likely that Stefano will be heading off to play his football elsewhere next season..

37- Roberto Pereyra

Whilst Roberto Pereyra’s second season at Vicarage Road saw him play a lot more football than his injury-hit first, you feel that we still haven’t seen the best of Roberto Pereyra.  Twice during the season he has played himself into quite magnificent form, twice seen it interrupted by first a (relatively brief) injury and then by the end of the season.

In between there’s been quite a lot of Roberto playing pretty well – and hell, an Argentinian international, a player of this quality playing pretty well is still a fine thing.  But just… a little bit within himself, a little bit contained.   Not lazy, not indifferent, he’s a hard-working guy just…  not bold enough, not nasty enough, not in charge enough.

Because when he’s that good he really is that good.  At Stamford Bridge it was Pereyra that flayed Chelsea’s defence, absolutely irrepressible before departing with injury after 65 minutes with the Hornets 2-1 up.  In the last home game of the season he was aflame again with a mischievous performance scoring the opener and setting up the second.  Would just be nice to see him take a game between his jaws a little more often.

Next Season:  An area of the team where there’s all manner of competition, Bobby’s versatility should guarantee he’s near the top of the pile.

Marco Silva

Really, there’s not an awful lot left to be said that hasn’t been said before, but let’s say it all again anyway.

Marco Silva seemed to be a bit of a coup when he arrived in Hertfordshire last summer.  There were early warning signs when he publicly objected to the loan of Nordin Amrabat to Leganes despite, one assumes, being both fully aware and informed of the lay of the land and the extent of his influence on transfer dealings when he got here.  Nonetheless, we started the season in fine form playing positive assertive football and losing only two of our opening ten games – one, spectacularly to Man City and the other, the tenth, at Stamford Bridge having put Chelsea to the sword for much of the game.  The same run yielded six points from goals scored in dying minutes via draws with Liverpool and West Brom and late winners over Swansea and Arsenal.

And then things went wrong.  It’s tempting to remember Everton as the game where everything pivoted;  actually the Stoke defeat the previous week had been a miserable affair, the only away win the Potters would earn before Swansea on the final day.  It’s beyond dispute, however, that Everton’s approach negatively impacted our season;  you could argue that this was always a risk with a coup like this, that he would move on again very quickly if his stock held but…. surely not this quickly.  Not unless he was mercenary enough to want to walk away from a contract he’d only signed ten games earlier.

But other factors were at play also.  Silva’s high intensity game yielded thrilling results but demanded a lot of the players, and there was evidence of fatigue as early as October, particularly from Richarlíson who had played for a long time without a break.  I’d contest that the wheels would have come off in any case had Everton not made an approach, in part reflecting injuries to key men such as Nathaniel Chalobah, in part reflecting over-reliance on some other members of the squad and limited rotation, in part, frankly, reflecting Marco Silva’s inability to apply corrective action.  Rather surprising that in a situation where Silva appeared to retain the favour of much of the squad and, to a degree, the support (if not the boardroom) he wasn’t able to coax more than three league wins out of his final sixteen in charge. The more cautionary assessments of his time at Hull had suggested that the apparently lost cause before he arrived cast a favourable glow on all that he achieved. Undeniably, the end to the Tigers’ season in which they won one – against the Hornets – and lost five of the final seven suggesting an inability to right the ship or to manage his preferred intensity over a prolonged period sound familiar, albeit in a different context.

Next Season:   Silva’s departure was inevitable, perhaps the more so given how things have transpired over the summer.  Watford’s peevishness in the light of his departure was both unseemly and completely understandable.  It’s quite possible that the growing list of Hornets being linked with Everton is mere paper talk, but if it has any validity it reflects poorly on Silva’s judgement – both in terms of how strong he believes his new hand is, and in the narrow focus of the players on his shopping list.  Everton’s visit to Vicarage Road won’t be for the faint hearted.

Javi Gracia

It perhaps says a lot how little it’s possible to say. That despite Javi Gracia having presided over three and a half months’ worth of games, the majority of which I was able to see, I’ve not got a clear picture in my head.  Not of his style, not of how “good” he is.  Certainly his approach seems more conservative than Silva’s, albeit that the switch from the enterprising back three with wing-backs to the more solid back four had first been implemented by Silva after the Huddersfield debacle in December.    Certainly he brought stability and a degree of conviction to a side which had precious little when he took over, and his achievement in that regard shouldn’t be taken for granted.  He also oversaw that magnificent win over Chelsea, giving credence to a reputation earned in Spain for upsetting more exalted opposition.

The cause for concern is of course that we only won three more games thereafter, and only one of them in the closing nine from mid-March onwards.  So…he’s more likeable than his predecessor, he says the right things, and he kept us up, something which didn’t look a given when he took over despite our good start.  But the jury’s still out.

Next Season:  A proper pre-season to implement his requirements – something which, as players have pointed out, no Watford manager has had since Gianfranco Zola in 2013 – and a running start rather than the firefighting after his appointment provide a more reasonable basis to assess Gracia.   That rumours of his departure this summer after only a few months didn’t turn out to be accurate doesn’t mean that his position will be secure if we don’t start well.

* * *

That’s it.  Thanks for bearing with this series and enjoy the World Cup…  if I can get my act together we’ll be back with the Season Preview in early August.


End of Term Report Part 6 07/06/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

25- José Holebas

There’s an undeniable charm about José Holebas.   Yes he’s hot-headed, furiously competitive, prone to throw his toys out of the pram to the point where you occasionally fear for his health (let alone that of those facing him), but there’s a charm nonetheless. Sometimes it manages to conceal itself quite deep admittedly such as during his lowest point this season, a gutless contribution to the miserable home defeat to Huddersfield.  Despite this, and other occasional lapses, there’s no failing to warm to his furious desire to win.

Beneath all the bluster he’s also been a very decent full back for us in a position which is as difficult to fill in the top flight as it was a division below when we signed Paul Mayo to replace Robbo fifteen years ago;  witness Ashley Young, Fabien Delph and James Milner all being shoe-horned, admittedly with some success, into this slot for the biggest clubs over the last year or two.  Not flawless, liable to occasionally be caught behind, but an experienced tick against an awkward box who has, for the most part, done us proud.  And only the nine bookings in 2018/19 too…

Next Season: That José is still here three years on would have been considered an unlikely outcome at several points during, and indeed prior to his Watford career.  However he turns 34 this month, and it seems inconceivable that some succession planning won’t be taking place.  Whether José will take kindly to being usurped I rather doubt…

27- Christian Kabasele

One of the quiet success stories of our year, Christian finished the campaign in the most solid looking central partnership we’d seen all season alongside the rejuvenated Craig Cathcart.  In actual fact, however, Christian had been a force for good throughout most of the campaign, quickly establishing himself as an automatic pick on the left side of the defence for the most part in the absence of the injured Britos – until Christian himself took his turn to sit out three months with a hamstring injury earlier this year.

It appears that this injury might have cost him a place in Belgium’s World Cup squad, a squad from which he was cut at the last… albeit that this is an area in which the Belgians appear well stocked.  For the Hornets he’s looked composed, confident, agile and strong, every inch a top defender… his worst fault, perhaps, that he occasionally loses himself as if distracted by an interesting passing beetle (to quote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s advice on learning to fly).  This was most dramatically showcased at Wembley, when his brain freeze contributed to Karnezis’ aggravating error.  Increasingly the exception however, Kabasele one of the less celebrated jewels in our crown.

Next Season:  A solid defender and a likeable man, you’d hope that Kabasele is one of the bedrocks that the side will be built around.

28- André Carrillo

A player whose signing was clearly chased quite hard before his loan was secured in late August, he managed to the pull off the trick of looking like a talented, capable player without ever quite working out or convincing you that he would be worth the £20m-odd that was being touted for a permanent deal.  There was a lot to like…  an endearing directness about his play, a tendency to be the player that tried to drag some quality out of our less convincing performances.  However there were also too many games that passed him by, that he took part in without really influencing.

He was very much Marco Silva’s man, and equally transparently not Javi Gracia’s man.  Or rather… for whatever reason he was all but discarded.  Gracia only started him once in the Premier League, at home to West Brom.  Gerard Deulofeu had been injured the week before, but the returning Will Hughes replaced Carrillo from the bench and the Peruvian never got another look in.

In the fall-out of Silva’s dalliances with Everton it was widely rumoured that there were players in the squad angling to follow their manager to Goodison Park.   Whilst names weren’t named, it’s difficult not to associate Carrillo with this rumour, particularly given his standing in the squad after Silva left.

Next Season:  All but inconceivable that Carrillo will be returning to the Vic.  Inevitably rumours are linking him again with his ex-boss.  It is to be hoped that he’s the only member of Silva’s Watford squad that follows him to Merseyside.

29- Étienne Capoue

There are few starker indicators of How Much Stuff Has Changed than the fact that at various times over the last year or so you wouldn’t have had Étienne Capoue in your first choice Watford side.  Perhaps you still wouldn’t.  A far cry from as few as three years ago when Capoue was the marquee record signing of our first summer back in the top flight.

Nowhere in the side are our current riches more extravagantly laid out than in midfield, admittedly.  Nonetheless, it’s remarkable both that Étienne Capoue only started five of 24 league games under Marco Silva, or that this isn’t particularly remarkable.  What was more remarkable was Capoue’s response to being thrown back into the side under Javi Gracia as our midfield options gradually dissipated.  His prolific run at the start of last season had suggested that an advanced midfield role was Étienne’s best position but here he was back in one of the nominally “holding” roles alongside Abdoulaye Doucouré, and produced arguably his most consistent run of form since joining the Hornets.

The ability has always been there.  And… it’s not that he’s suddenly flawless, Dad’s ongoing objection to his tendency to dangle a foot half-heartedly in the direction of a tackle isn’t based on expectation alone.  Nonetheless, a stunning end to the season from the Frenchman, including my favourite moment of the season when his defiance of Chelsea’s equaliser at Vicarage Road, surging forward in denial of the way the match appeared to be turning changed the tone of the game again.

Next Season:  A very real and versatile option in a competitive area of the pitch.  All good.

End of Term Report Part 5 04/06/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

18- Andre Gray

Football players don’t have to be likeable.  Bastards, for example, have a role.  Ask Real Madrid, ask Sergio Ramos.  A cartoon character, a leader, a bastard.  He’s captained his side to the Champions’ League three times, he’s a knobhead, he doesn’t care and nor do Madrid because he’s their knobhead.  Marlon King.  Also, patently, not a very nice man… characteristics cast into light more sharply after he left Watford but even at the time you knew.  We all knew.  But whilst he was scoring goals, the roaring, snarling spearhead of the side it didn’t matter (up to a point).

If you’re struggling a bit, coming across as an idiot loses its charm somewhat, such as it is.  In Gray’s case, cupping your hand to your ear in response to perceived injustices having ended a run without a goal…. well.  Once, ill-judged, generously.  Twice, just crass.  He must have received some stick I guess to have reacted that way at all but it was really very tame indeed in the context of a record signing who was making a habit of bottling one-on-ones.  In the job he’s in he really has to be a bit thicker-skinned than that.  Not a reaction that left you rooting for the guy.

Nonetheless, he’s a better player than his modest goal return might suggest and we’ve looked a better side with him in it.  In particular it’s to be hoped that Javi can be persuaded to roll out the two-up-front recklessness of the final home game of the season against Newcastle;  both Troy and Andre looked all the better for it.

Next Season:  Rumours persist of another move with suggestions in the second half of the campaign that he’d been offered to Cardiff.  The Pozzos aren’t known to dawdle over their decisions, but it would still just about be surprising to see him go.

19- Will Hughes

Another tremendous signing from a summer of 2017 in which the incoming hit-rate was remarkably high.  Hughes took a while to force a look in and when he got it, having scored against West Ham and Newcastle in his second and third Premier League starts he did his hamstring against Manchester United three days later and aggravatingly sat out the next three months.

But when he returned, and virtually throughout his time on the pitch, he’s been an absolute joy. A whirlwind of mischief and energy and guile and a little bit of devilment, in this and his tendency to run himself to a verge-of-fainting standstill on about 75 minutes he’s an echo of another former Derby County youth who signed 20 years ago this summer.  Quite how this impossible treasure trove of midfielders fits together if and when everyone is fit is anyone’s guess but that’s a problem to worry about if and when it ever comes.  Will is a force for good wherever he’s accommodated.

Next Season:  A popular theory when Will joined a year ago was that he might be better suited to the Premier League than the more brutal intensity of the second tier.  He’s certainly not looked out of place, and if he can finally have a season free of the injuries that delayed his ascent to the highest tier, full international recognition is far from out of the question.

21- Kiko Femenía

A season of two halves for Kiko.  A relatively low key signing last summer he became one of the key components of the side that flourished under Marco Silva early in the season, revelling in the wing back role that showcased his stamina and acceleration.  The sight of Kiko roaring unnoted and untracked into space on the overlap was one of the defining images of that successful spell.

Whilst a number of other things were going wrong in early December, Kiko’s hamstring popping saw him sit out two months.  He returned to a new head coach and a back four that didn’t suit him nearly as well.  His outings under Javi Gracia were as a winger ahead of Daryl Janmaat at right back, and whilst the team struggled – we only earned a point from the six games he started on his return – Femenía in particular had little impact, only twice completing 90 minutes.

Next Season:  Like the rest of the squad, Kiko needs an injury-free run and a decent pre-season.  Thereafter we’ll maybe find out whether he’s versatile enough to be something other than a terrific wing back.

22- Marvin Zeegelaar

Zeegelaar signed on deadline day, quite transparently a last-minute means of filling a vacancy which had had someone else’s name on it.  His debut had to wait until West Ham’s visit in November, within seconds of which Andy Carroll’s elbow provided an uncompromising introduction to the English game.

Popular wisdom seems to be that Zeegelaar has been a low-cost failure, emergency cover at left back who isn’t quite up to it.  Certainly there were games – particularly at Vicarage Road – where Marvin was exposed, but his form was patchy rather than inadequate, his preference for going forward rather than backward common with most of our full backs.  His rampage up the left flank at St James Park was a major factor in the victory, and he played a full part in the stonking win over Chelsea from a wing back role.  Five days later however his slip at the London Stadium gave a mundane West Ham side an opening.  Marvin was replaced twenty minutes later and didn’t play for the side again, not managing as much as a place on the bench after the West Brom win in early March.

Next Season:  The much travelled Zeegelaar has, at the age of 27, played in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and the UK.  It seems likely that he’ll be finding another home before the end of the summer.  Jose Holebas turns 34 this month and we need a succession plan at the very least.  Marvin was passable cover, but isn’t a long term heir.

End of Term Report Part 4 31/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

13- Molla Wagué

If we’re honest, this is where reality meanders idly towards the kind of dystopia that Watford’s set-up has been most excitably criticised.  The notion of mercenary footballers being traded idly between Watford and Udinese like football stickers. Not that close, mind; more of a glance in the general direction of.  Wagué is no more or less a mercenary than anyone else moving somewhere for their job, and in the circumstances exploiting our relationship to provide much-needed cover was perfectly reasonable, but nonetheless…

Wagué was a last minute loan signing aimed at filling a space on the roster, cover in the centre of defence when it became rapidly clear that we were going to have availability issues at the back.  In his handful of games he looked decent, surprisingly quick and nimble but not immune to the odd mistake, which is why he was only afforded the status of emergency cover.  Come the end of January with central defenders returning (or expected to be returning) he was omitted from the Premier League 25 and so his Watford career ended with the same game as Marco Silva’s, a defeat at Leicester City where he had spent half a season last year playing 70 minutes of an FA Cup defeat at Millwall.  Wiser men than me put him at the bottom of our list of options;  we nod, and thank him, and consign him to the list of players whose names we’ll struggle to recall in a couple of years’ time.

Next Season:  Back at Udinese, one suspects, at least in name;  there looked to be a decent enough defender to be playing at a reasonable level there though.

14- Nathaniel Chalobah

Well what a bloody shame that was.

After a coup of a signing (including a wonderfully mischievous and theatrical Twitter announcement) hopes were high for this season.  August form prompted an England call-up as Chalobah and Doucouré formed a magnificent bedrock to the side in the early fixtures of the season, showcasing the young midfielder’s quick feet, awareness, and ability to choreograph counter-attacks at will.  This was most in evidence at Southampton, where Nate was the star of a fabulous team performance, a weapon in attack and in defence.

Ten days later an innocuous non-contact injury picked up at a training session utterly knackered his season and, arguably, provided the first body-blow to our excellent start.  Initial prognosis was Christmas, but as Christmas came and went without any sign of a return it became clear that this season was a write off.  As I’ve lamented several times, if Doucs does leave this summer we’ve been deprived of a truly formidable midfield pairing., but whatever… it was, in any event, excellent to see him on the pitch at Old Trafford for the final game of the season.

Next Season:  Rewind.  As you were.  Knee injuries are ominous things, but if Nate regains the form of early season there’s another jewel back in place in our crown.  Like many of our squad he comes across as an intelligent, grounded and thoroughly likeable chap.  Fingers, again, crossed.

15- Craig Cathcart

There’s a school of thought out there that seems to see Craig Cathcart as something other than a tremendous defender and a first choice centre back, which baffles me somewhat.   Yet another season decimated by injury, Craig had missed the end of pre-season and made his first appearance off the bench against Brighton in the wake of Miguel Britos’ dismissal.  Twenty minutes later he was off again with a knee injury, destined not to start a game until the trip to Huddersfield in mid-April which most people seem to have hated but I rather enjoyed.

The result of that game, and the one win yielded from the final five in which he played every minute disguise the settling effect Craig had on a defence which suddenly looked solid, arguably for the first time this season.  He makes an art form of unflashily being in the right place and the right time and Sorting Things Out;  no surprise that the defensively minded Gracia quickly recognised his value, or that we yielded only five goals in those five games which included trips to Spurs and United.  One goal a game against significantly preferable to the 1.8 per game over the rest of the season (one of which, that clean sheet with ten men against Brighton, Craig had also been a part of).

Next Season:  Whilst we expect to see incoming traffic in the centre of defence over the summer, that partnership with Kabasele looked very decent to me.  Very much part of the picture still one hopes;  Slav, for one, will be sniffing around again should this not be the case.  Would be our loss.

16- Abdoulaye Doucouré

Easily forgotten that Doucs was discarded at the start of last season, almost on a plane to Lorient as Walter Mazzarri made what was already the first baffling decision of his Watford career.  When he nudged his way into the side in the wake of an insurmountable injury crisis his impact was such that he was mentioned in the Player of the Season discussions a year ago after only half a season in the side.

There was no such discussion this time.  No need for it.  We’ve had some very fine midfielders in the past.  Others, perhaps less talented, who have performed an essential role as a cog in a functioning unit.  But I struggle to remember as dominant a season by a central midfielder, certainly not at this level.  Nobody has grabbed the midfield like Doucouré and flayed it to within an inch of its life, stomping all over it, driving through it, winning back possession and setting an attack into motion, seven times being at the decisive end of it, the first midfielder to top our goalscoring charts since Peter Kennedy 20 years ago.

Towards the end of the season his form dipped a little, but even then he was a more than capable member of a suddenly functioning midfield unit.  The only real downside, of course, the fact that having justifiably attracted the attention of the country’s biggest clubs he made no secret of preening in front of them.  No surprise or disgrace that he should want to better himself of course…  indeed, the whole Pozzo model is dependent on selling on the family silver (at the right time, for the right price).  But… he could have been a bit less excitable about it.

Next Season:  He’ll only be at Vicarage Road if nobody’s offered us a shedload of money.  And someone or three really ought to be offering us a shedload of money.


End of Term Report Part 3 28/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

8- Tom Cleverley

In the latest of a series of many, yet another player to have their season knackered by injury – and, yes, another bloody hamstring that somehow ruled Tom out for half the season – he started two league games in 2018 and finished neither of them.

A crying shame since he looked every bit the part in almost every game he played;  continuation of that form would certainly have had him up there with Doucouré in contention for Player of the Season.  Indeed – and this is a subject we’ll return to at least once – if Doucouré does leave one can’t help but feel cheated at being deprived of a season of a magnificent midfield which briefly saw Doucs and Chalobah sitting behind the dynamic Cleverley. He looks so much more effective in an advanced central position than he did in the sitting or wide positions to which he was often relegated earlier in his career at bigger clubs with fancier squads.  He’s a leader too, and worth noting that one of the reasons for which we were criticised for a lack of on-pitch leaders late in the season was that they were all bloody injured. Again.

He could score more goals, admittedly.  His prolific loan season yielded 11 goals in 2009/10, he’s managed a further 13 in eight seasons since (though admittedly without Danny Graham charging around in front of him and dragging apart spaces between defenders).  If you’re going to score one though, a last minute winner thumped into the roof of the net against Arsenal and in front of the Rookery isn’t a bad way to do it.

Next Season: In an area of the pitch where competition is fierce, one of the first names on the teamsheet.

9- Troy Deeney

Amongst the list of summer discussons to keep us busy until August comes along, the “has Troy’s time finally come?” one is right up there.  And not without justification.  Troy’s eighth season with Watford saw him fail to reach double figures for the first time since his debut at the club, a year in which a lot of his appearances were off the bench.  This season, too, lack of game time played a part and this was often his doing;  a half-witted suspension picked up retrospectively against Stoke and a slightly harsher sending off against Huddersfield that was nonetheless borne of frustration yielded seven games of suspension between them, contributing to Deeney starting only one in three games under Marco Silva.  Used more frequently by Javi Gracia, Troy nonetheless failed to make his traditional impact, scoring only two Premier League goals from open play, in successive home wins over Everton and West Brom.

Perhaps his most dominant game was in the home win over Arsenal.  This came off the bench too, lest we forget, his half hour tour de force battering us back into the game and preceding his infamous “cojones” BT Sport interview.  You’ll have your own view on that;  for me, the two regrets are that this is probably what Troy’s season will be remembered for – which says a lot – and that he set up the inevitability of the defeat at the Emirates during which the witless element of the home support laughed and pointed as if somehow bumbling to a home win (and sixth place) proved him wrong.  That aside, fair play.  Direct, candid, accurate and very funny.

If what we’ve seen this season is a high water mark for what’s to follow, if it’s all downhill from here, then the argument that now might be the time looks a compelling one.  However I don’t believe that for a second.  The detail most easily forgotten about Troy’s season is the groin injury that wiped out his pre-season and opening month or so.  Many have been the players – Gavin Mahon springs to mind, Heidar too – who suffered badly when their pre-season was blighted and Troy appears no different.  You might not care to allow for this, and you might dispute that we owe him anything – Troy is, after all, very well paid for captaining the team (although as an aside I’d have to wonder what you’re here for if you’re not at least a little bit emotionally invested…).  But for me, even forgetting too the context of one striker likely to leave (Okaka) and one who is either being offered around or has his agent busy (Gray), even setting that aside, Troy is still a leader, a totem, an asset and has much too much going for him in terms of ability and personality to be discarded so recklessly.  To repeat Jonathan Lieuw’s observation in his post-Chelsea Independent report, “(Deeney was)….part battering ram, part talisman, like the carving on the bow of a warship”.

That’s priceless.

Next Season;  Captain.  Leader,  Still.  Yes.

10- Isaac Success

Here’s a much easier one to assess, since there’s very little mystery about this situation.  Isaac Success arrived the best part of two years ago as what was maybe, probably, roughly if perhaps only briefly our record signing (but who can tell?).  He looked young and raw but powerful, athletic, positive, exciting and full of character.  A bundle of fun to watch develop, the only frustration that he was let off the leash so rarely, since his brand of muscular chaos was something that Walter Mazzarri’s side could frankly have done with more of.

As this season has demonstrated however, in several different ways, there’s a fundamental problem.  Not with Isaac’s ability, which is breathtaking… local reports tell of a slaloming insane run in Málaga’s final doomed game of the season, albeit followed by a misjudged decision to lay the ball off.  So… there’s more than enough raw material there.  The problem,it seems, is that the man’s a bloody idiot.

It should be emphasised that being a bloody idiot doesn’t generally prohibit a successful career as a footballer.  Further, we were all bloody idiots at 22 – if I think back to that time I cringe, and if you’re telling me you do otherwise then you’re a liar.  And I wasn’t faced with the challenges of being extraordinarily well paid for playing football whilst living away from home on the edge of one of the liveliest cities in the world (though I never resorted to Baileys…).  Nonetheless… as my co-editor once said of a player whose career never did live up to its potential, “He’s so in love with the idea of being a playboy footballer that he’s forgotten you’ve got to be a footballer first”.

Next Season:  There’s still time for Isaac to sort his head out, and there’s a bloody wonderful footballer in there if he does.  Fingers crossed.

11- Richarlíson

The thing that’s easy to forget is quite how bloody frightening Richarlíson was at the stat of the season… perversely, since “that Richarlíson’s a bit good isn’t he” has been your half-interested mate at work’s opening gambit for long after the young Brazilian had really rather stopped being that good.  A flick through the highlights clips from those early games does wonders though…  the speed, the cleverness of feet, the aggression, the bloody-mindedness in response to the early softener that every opponent resorted to, as if that had never been tried before.  That was what was most impressive perhaps, the refusal to be bullied into submission.  He had tricks and pace and a bit of grit too (albeit, if we’re honest, his finishing was never all that even when everything else was going well).

So where did it all go?  Certainly his performances since before Christmas bear little comparison to the flaming torch that was so impossible to ignore earlier in the season.  The theories are manifold, the most popular being physical exhaustion given the duration of his length of playing time without a break.  This was high on the list of Marco Silva’s crimes for me;  Everton nonsense aside, Silva’s unwillingness to respond to what appeared to be fatigue of key players borne of over-reliance upon key individuals was most obviously manifested in Richarlíson.  On the other hand… perhaps the loss of a Portuguese-speaking coach who obviously got a lot out of the youngster for a short time might also be a factor;  certainly for a young lad away from home not speaking the language, a boss who can communicate with you efficiently must have been a big help.

A less palatable hypothesis is that Richarlíson rather thinks that his work here is done.  I can’t shake the irritation of his appearance off the bench against Palace when, with his side desperate for some impetus he offered precious little.  Being physically drained shouldn’t prohibit at least ten minutes of oomph as a second half substitute.  Then there’s the links to other clubs, which were inevitable given his early season form and reflect his success rather than his failings but…  players heads have been turned before.

Next Season:  If Richarlíson’s slump is due to a combination of fatigue and the pressures of being away from home then we owe him all the support we can give him; there’s a stellar talent there the likes of which we’ve rarely been treated to.  On the other hand if his head’s not here any more we’re better off getting rid for as much cash as someone’s willing to throw at us.  Except Everton, obvs.

End of Term Report Part 2 24/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

5- Sebastian Prödl

A bit of a contrast for 2016/17’s Player of the Season, who enjoyed nothing like the same success this time around.  Sidelined with a hamstring injury for much of the first half of the season his much vaunted return coincided with our collapse in form in December.  He struggled badly in many of those games looking a clumsy and unhappy shadow of the dominant figure of last season, subsequently suggesting that he came back from injury too early in the light of our injury problems.  When he was dropped for the untested Molla Wagué on Boxing Day we scraped a win, and though our form took longer to settle Seb was largely confined to the bench throughout a busy January.

Back into the side under Javi Gracia he’s looked more solid, more like his old self although he’s never been quite as happy in the back four that the Spaniard prefers.

Next Season:  It will be interesting to see how Seb goes next season.  He’s a big personality, a leader, but the Kabasele/Cathcart partnership looked a strong one.  An massive asset in the right formation, he can look older than his 30 years when exposed.

6- Adrian Mariappa

Those of the 4000-odd that watched a young Mariappa in tears as the Hornets side that he captained bowed out of the Youth Cup to Spurs in 2005 will have taken nothing but joy from the last eighteen months or so of his career.  A last resort under Mazzarri he’s been much more frequently employed this term;  injuries have played a part again, but nonetheless only four players – Doucouré, Richarlíson, Kabasele, Holebas – started more games and seeing Mapps captain the side at Wembley was a fine thing on an otherwise unremarkable evening.

If his performances haven’t been faultless he’s nonetheless been in the side on merit;  ploughing through match programme interviews has him invariably cited as the best trainer at the club, the most committed.  He’s a 100% bona fide asset, and the longer he’s involved in the first team squad the happier I’ll be – it would be interesting to know where he came in the Player of the Season reckoning which, as an aside, seems to drift incongruously further away from the bulk of the support with every season.

Next Season:  You might not have him in your first choice eleven, but his versatility and drive demands a place on the bench.  And home grown to boot, in the very truest sense.  Hurrah.

7 (#1) – Nordin Amrabat

Nordin started three Premier League games for us this season.  That feels slightly extraordinary now, as is often the case when reviewing August departures in these days of a rapidly churning squad.  Indeed, his departure to Leganés on loan was slightly surprising giving his early involvement and was lamented by an already whining Marco Silva, the earliest sign that all was not altogether smooth behind the scenes under the new head coach.

Nonetheless, there’s not a lot to add.  Nordin’s got something, a directness and aggression but it never quite delivered on its promise at Watford, certainly not consistently enough.  He’s featured regularly in Spain this term, but the fact that he scored his first goal in three years against Betis this week tells a story.

Next Season:  A place in Morocco’s World Cup squad gives Amrabat a platform to find a long-term home.  It seems unlikely to be at Vicarage Road.

7 (#2) – Gerard Deulofeu

What a bizarre thing.  Anyone who’s watched Watford – any club, perhaps – for any length of time will be used to the sight of a winger exploding into view with an exciting burst of light, a good line in tricks or the ability to run very fast, only to disappear equally quickly when the characteristics missing from the extensive armoury that a successful winger requires – speed, strength, delivery, decision making, ability to look up now and again – are exposed.

What’s unusual is for this to happen within the space of seven games   (Anthony McNamee, after all, seemed to take a decade to tread this well established path). “Disappearing” is a bit of an exaggeration of course but nonetheless….  after a promising debut at Stoke, the Spaniard – a high profile loan signing, a coup – helped us blow Chelsea away in the most memorable evening of the campaign.  He was the shining star of a glorious night, winning the opening penalty and scoring a ludicrous third goal before departing to an ovation.

And that, pretty much, was that.  He limped out of the game against Everton and onto the sidelines for two months but his impact against West Ham and for an hour against his former club had  already been less startling.  Less startling, certainly than the extraordinary statistic that bears repeating:  those first three goals against Chelsea were the only goals we scored with Gerard on the pitch.

Next Season:  Gerard joined Watford to play his way into World Cup contention and to provide us with some pzazz that we’d been missing.  The move failed on both counts but might not have…  there’s more than enough about him to suggest that he’s still a coup, that we’d benefit more from him than the last few months have suggested – certainly in the decision to forego Barcelona for Vicarage Road suggests a strong character.  The tone of his departure and social media goodbye suggested that this might not be the case, but more encouraging reports appeared yesterday.  Watch this space.

End of Term Report Part 1 21/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1- Heurelho Gomes

Had you told us, four years ago, that we’d get three and a half sterling seasons out of Heurelho Gomes, seasons that would see us promoted and dropping anchor in the Premier League with Gomes one of the team’s generals, a huge booming personality who would win Player of the Season… we’d have taken that.  That it’s been three and a half seasons and not four is fundamentally down to a back spasm suffered at Leicester following which Orestis Karnezis was given a chance and, until the tail end of the season, did nothing to warrant losing it again.

But I guess it’s significant that Gomes wasn’t recalled straight away.  I guess…. you bring in a senior, international keeper on loan, you don’t want to discard him when he’s grabbing his chance, but Gomes not being an automatic pick when available would have been unthinkable as recently as a year ago.  I’m not sure it was the right decision with the benefit of hindsight, a defence needs leaders and voices and Gomes is both.  But the fact that we’re even having a conversation suggests that things may have changed.  Certainly, for all that the first half of the season featured some strong performances from Gomes, his celebrated masterclass in the defeat of West Ham not least, he had a few iffier moments too.

Next Season: Gomes has indicated his intention to retire next summer.  We have 12 months to identify a replacement, but are all the stronger for Gomes’ presence in the meantime.

2- Daryl Janmaat

Here’s the thing.  Given that we’re never going to be a Manchester City there’s always going to be something of the imperfect about our players, even our star players, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.  Yes, so-and-so is great but… he does get caught in possession, or he really could use an extra yard of pace, or his decision making isn’t the best or some other bugger’s going to nick him because he’s too good for us and there’s no hiding our gems any more, not even a little bit.

So it is with Janmaat, who has a flaw.  It’s a fairly fundamental flaw for a defender, in that he really isn’t great at defending but in so many other respects he’s tremendous and of course, of course, if he could do all this and defend as well he wouldn’t be playing for us.  So…  the tremendous support he provides to the attack up the right, delivering balls of a dependable quality.  The fabulous, rhinoceros runs that have seen him career through a Chelsea defence twice in the last twelve months, ricocheting off obstacles as he goes.  The wholeheartedness about everything, someone who’s plugged away even when they haven’t been a first choice.  Yes, that’s a big “but” in that first paragraph.  There remains an awful lot to like though, even if smiling a bit more probably wouldn’t hurt his cause.

Next Season:  Right back is no longer a priority recruitment position, you suspect.  Daryl’s going to be thundering up and down our right flank for a while yet.

3- Miguel Britos

It seems that we might have seen the last of Miguel Britos.  It’s possible of course that a new deal was signed without fanfare; Sky’s page listing out-of-contract players suggests that Watford have advised that no senior players are out of contract this summer, one interpretation of which is a rather damning indictment of Britos’ diminishing status.

There’s always been an element of nervousness about Britos, for all that he was all but an automatic pick – when available – for his first two seasons at the club.  Incidents like the ludicrous lunge at Anthony Knockaert in August never felt too far from the surface.  Such isolated incidents paint a distorted picture however, since the Uruguayan would not have held down a place for so long in a defence that, whatever its limitations, has kept us in the Premier League were such incidents typical.  Britos has been at worst a capable option on the left of a pair or a back three but having been ruled out for several months by a foot injury sustained at St James’ Park in November was only used once by Javi Gracia, and that in a thankless task against an irrepressible Mo Salah at Anfield.  One might almost suggest that Britos’ loss of confidence was a calculated one on the part of Gracia, who might have figured that other options could afford a roasting less.  A bit harsh that such is our last memory of him though.

Next Season:  Sparta Prague were linked with a move for Britos last summer.  That feels about right.  Best of luck to Miguel, wherever he ends up.

4- Younès Kaboul

As ever with a player who has been injured all season, there’s very little to say.  Marco Silva lamented the Frenchman’s loss in particular and it’s not hard to see why;  particularly in a back four Kaboul can be imperious, the sort of leader our defence has missed all season.  Looking back at his track record however isn’t altogether encouraging;  this is not a player who has been run into the ground over the course of a long career.  Only once, in 2011/12, has he racked up as many as 40 competitive games and since then he’s managed 85 across 6 seasons.  Competition for a place at Spurs will have contributed to that low number, but this is not a player whose fitness can be relied upon.  This year he played the full 90 on the opening day against Liverpool, missed three games through injury, returned for an hour at Southampton and then that was it for the season as first muscle problems then a metatarsal fracture conspired to remove him from consideration.  Vague assurances about his impending return to full training and the first team squad never quite materialised, one can only imagine that there are concerns about his long term fitness.

Next Season: Kaboul has one more year on his contract, but that’s rather academic since if he can’t get fit then he’s not going to be any better able to contribute anywhere else than he is here.  If he can return to fitness he’s clearly an asset and a big personality, fingers remain crossed.  It would be a surprise to see him in Javi Gracia’s first starting line-up of next season though.

Helping Hands 2017/2018 16/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

Back for an eleventh season of summarising stuff you’ve probably found elsewhere if you’re that bothered in the first place.  Nonetheless…  I enjoy reviewing the goals because they’re largely if not exclusively fun bits, so 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….

Last season’s table told a story of a lack of creativity from midfield, something which has been largely addressed according to the stats below (tho the devil’s in the detail, no goals away from home since Jan 2nd etc etc etc).  Richarlíson stands out a mile of course, as does the unavoidable corollary that those eight assists, like his five goals, all came in 2017.  Reviewing the videos highlights quite how starkly his form has fallen away – he really was extraordinary in the first half of the season – but the End of Term Report is the place for That Kind Of Thing, so we’ll leave it for now…

In second place but with an even more impressive assist-per-game ratio of two every five games rather than four every seventeen (ha!) is the livewire Will Hughes, who has brought the Nicky Wright thing of running himself to a standstill in the name of all that is good back to Vicarage Road.  With Roberto Pereyra contributing at the same steady rate as last year and Tom Cleverley upping his ante from last year, both on half a season’s worth of games, the impression that our midfield is loading the bullets is re-enforced.  Abdoulaye Doucouré excellent campaign yielded only three assists although the first of them – to release Gerard Deulofeu against Chelsea – was arguably the assist of the season whilst Étienne Capoue continues to yield a meagre return.  His “assist” involved clubbing a shot into the chest of Per Mertesacker for Tom Cleverley to gobble up against Arsenal in October – I told you my definition was generous – this his fourth assist in three seasons and first at Vicarage Road.

Elsewhere Marvin Zeegelaar’s two assists came within an excitable half hour at St James Park, gift wrapped by an inattentive DeAndre Yedlin, whilst Gerard Deulofeu’s time on pitch in a Watford shirt saw us score only three times, all against Chelsea in a game in which he scored one, made one, and was subbed to an ovation in the two minute interval between his goal (our third) and Pereyra’s fourth.  Of those not to have contributed, Kiko Femenía is perhaps the biggest surprise but he’s loads of fun so we let him off.

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

Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Richarlíson 8 34+7 5 Liv (H), WBA (A), Ars (H), Che (A), New (A), CrP (A), Lei (H), Swa (H)
Hughes 5 12+4 2 BrC (H – LC), WHU (H), WBA (H), Bou (H), Bur (H)
Pereyra 4 19+15 5 MaU (H), BrC (H – FAC), Che (H), New (H)
Cleverley 4 23+2 1 Sot (A), Tot (H), Lei (H), BrC (H – FAC)
Holebas 4 28+3 0 Liv (H), WBA (A), Eve (A), Bou (H)
Gray 3 17+16 5 Bou (A), Eve (A), WHU (H)
Carrillo 3 18+12 2 Swa (A), MaU (H), MaC (A)
Doucouré 3 39 7 Che (H), Che (H), New (H)
Zeegelaar 2 13 0 New (A), New (A)
Deeney 2 22+9 6 BrC (H – FAC), Sot (H)
Deulofeu 1 5+2 1 Che (H)
Okaka 1 3+13 1 Eve (H)
Capoue 1 21+5 3 Ars (H)
Janmaat 1 23+3 3 Sot (H)
Kabasele 1 30+1 2 BrC (H – LC)
Success 0 0+1 0
Lukebakio 0 0+1 0
Sinclair 0 0+5 0
Kaboul 0 2 0
Amrabat 0 4 0
Chalobah 0 5+1 0
Cathcart 0 5+2 0
Wagué 0 6+1 1
Watson 0 8+3 0
Britos 0 10+2 1
Karnezis 0 15+1 0
Prödl 0 18+4 0
Femenía 0 19+4 1
Gomes 0 26 0
Mariappa 0 26+4 1

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


The List 2018. 15/05/2018

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

You know the deal.  Herewith your summer list 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.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

January 2018 List / Summer 2017 List / January 2017 List / Summer 2016 List / January 2016 List / Summer 2015 List

Running Total: 75


Alex Meret (Udinese)                                                            – joined Napoli
Marcelo Brozović (Inter)
Mattia Destro (Bologna)*
André-Frank Zambo Anguissa (Marseille)*                           – joined Fulham
Joel Asoro (Sunderland)                                                     – joined Swansea
Joshua Maja (Sunderland)
Yuto Nagatomo (Inter)                                                     – joined Galatasaray
Ben Wilmot (Stevenage)                                                         SIGNED
Tobias Pachonik (Carpi)
Walace (Hamburg)                                                       – joined Hannover 96
Bryan Cristante (Benfica)                         – Joined Atalanta, then Roma on loan
Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona)                                                   SIGNED
Ignacio Camacho (Wolfsburg)
Tom Cairney (Fulham)
Igor Coronado (Palermo)
Souza (Fenerbahҫe)
Andriy Lunin (Zorya Luhansk)                                       – joined Real Madrid
Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic)                                                   (signed new contract)
Tom Heaton (Burnley)*
Danilo (Udinese)                                                    – joined Bologna on loan
Mouctar Diakhaby (Lyon)                                                  – joined Valencia
Dalbert (Inter)
Fran Sol (Willem II)
Salomon Rondon (West Brom)                              – joined Newcastle on loan
Callum McGregor (Celtic)
Rafael Tolói (Atalanta)*
Niclas Füllkrug (Hannover)
Jordan Greenidge (Stoke)                                         – joined Omonia Nicosia
Jefferson Lerma (Levante)                                            – joined Bournemouth
Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea City)                                      – joined West Ham
Matt Clarke (Portsmouth)*
Trézéguet (Kasimpasa)
Angus Gunn (Manchester City)                                   – joined Southampton
Grégoire Defrel (Roma)*                                    – joined Sampdoria on loan
Jack Butland (Stoke City)
Sergio Rico (Sevilla)                                                   – joined Fulham on loan
Mounir Chouiar (Lens)
Adam Masina (Bologna)                                                              – SIGNED
Andre Silva (Milan)                                                    – joined Sevilla on loan
Felipe Anderson (Lazio)                                                   – joined West Ham
Domagoj Vida (Besiktas)
Anderson Talisca (Benfica)
Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha BSC)
Harvey St Clair (Chelsea)                                                         – joined Venezia
Bruno Varela (Benfica)
Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray)
Ludwig Augustinsson (Werder Bremen)
Sam Vokes (Burnley)
Ben Foster (West Brom)                                                                  –SIGNED
Yasin Ben El-Mhanni (Newcastle United)
Pape Gueye (Le Havre)
Jamal Lewis (Norwich City)
Fraser Forster (Southampton)
Ken Sema (Östersunds)                                                                 –SIGNED
George Puscas (Inter Milan)                                                   – joined Palermo
Josip Drmić (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
Momo Mbaye (Cadiz)
Tarek Hamed (Zamalek)
Jack Rodwell (Unattached)                                                    – joined Blackburn
Artem Dzyuba (Zenit St.Petersburg)
Diego Reyes (Unattached)                                                 – joined Fenerbahçe
Wesley Said (Dijon)
Paco Alcacer (Barcelona)                                         – joined Dortmund on loan
Divock Origi (Liverpool)
Álvaro Garcia (Cadiz)                                                     – joined Rayo Vallecano
Rachid Ghezzal (AS Monaco)                                                  – joined Leicester
James Ward-Prowse (Southampton)
Craig Dawson (West Brom)
Stefano Sturaro (Juventus)                                         – joined Sporting on loan
Gonçalo Guedes (PSG)                                                             – joined Valencia
Thiago Maia (Lille)
Jake Livermore (West Brom)*
Emiliano Sala (Nantes)
Djibril Sidibé (Monaco)*
Harry Arter (Bournemouth)                                           – joined Cardiff on loan

Abdoulaye Doucouré (Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, Man U, Everton)
Juan “Cucho” Hernandez (Barcelona, Espanyol, Sevilla, Huesca)
.                                                                                Extended Huesca Loan
Richarlíson (Arsenal, Chelsea, PSG, Monaco, Man United, Everton, Bayern, Juventus, Liverpool)
.                                                                                      – joined Everton
Andre Gray (Cardiff City, Everton, Brighton, Stoke City)
Troy Deeney (Newcastle*, Cardiff CityBurnley)
Costel Pantilimon (Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa*)         – joined Nottm Forest
Marvin Zeegelaar (Ajax)
Ryan Cassidy (Everton)
Roberto Pereyra (Torino, Fiorentina, Napoli)
Stefano Okaka (Bologna, Wolfsburg, Bursaspor)
Obbi Oularé (Standard Liège)
Pervis Estupiñan (Porto, Sporting Lisbon)
Daryl Janmaat (Feyenoord)
Nordin Amrabat (Trabzonspor, Al Nasr)                           – joined Al Nasr
Tommie Hoban (Bolton Wanderers)                       – joined Aberdeen on loan
Miguel Britos (Sampdoria)
Jerome Sinclair (Sunderland)                                  – joined Sunderland on loan
Isaac Success (Aston Villa)



Watford 2 Newcastle United 1 (05/05/2018) 06/05/2018

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

1. On the walk down to my office, there’s an old lamppost. It’s at the bottom of one of Hastings’ many steep hills, as a footpath meets a busy road. So many people have used it to stop their descent before they reach the road that its black paint has worn away to the silver metal at hand-height. All those hands reaching out over all those years. It gives me a sense of contentment in the same way as the small wooden step into our kitchen, which has been worn to a gentle, undulating curve by a hundred years of footsteps. Things that don’t change much. Things that have no need of much change. Things with their own quiet stories.

It’s tempting to say that so much has changed at Vicarage Road since I first visited it as a seven-year-old that I wouldn’t recognise it, but I’m not quite sure that’s true. Part of the wonder of football grounds is how much they and their environs can change to keep pace with the times while retaining the same essential shape and familiarity. The same roads, the same pavements, the same street corners; the same journey home, literally and metaphorically. Different buildings in the same spaces, filling in tightly between the pitch and the surrounding roads. I could still hazard a guess at the spot somewhere near the top of Occupation Road where I stood on that first visit, completely transfixed by the photograph on the programme cover, my first real memory of going to football. I don’t imagine I’d be far out.

2. I haven’t been here since July. Even then, that was over there, in the Graham Taylor stand, not in what is still technically my seat. I haven’t been here since I-could-look-it-up-but-I-can’t-actually-remember. Whenever it was, it didn’t feel like this. It’s a beautiful blue-skied day, t-shirts and shorts weather, and Vicarage Road seems so much more vibrant and vivid than I remember it. Perhaps it’s the contrast with the rest of the season spent in relatively rustic non-league surroundings, but this suddenly feels like a wonderfully compact, enclosed, energetic space for a football match, a stadium truly transformed by the work done by the Pozzos. The atmosphere is upbeat, perhaps aided by the imminent end of a long, hard season. Not worn down by it, at least. Summer’s here. Football’s coming home. And so on.

3. There’s a danger, having been absent for so long, that any opinions I offer come from a position of such detachment that they’re completely inane, in much the same way as when I lent a Sepultura album to someone and the best response they could manage was that all the songs sounded the same, as if they ought to have chucked in an ABBA tribute halfway through for the sake of variety. If you’re closer to it all, I imagine it’s been a season of vibrant highs and awful lows, just as I could’ve named every track on that album from its intro. From further away…well, not so much.

From my far-away place, it seems to me that the relative ease with which relegation has been avoided in each of the last three seasons is both a tremendous achievement and a bit of a curse, for mid-season safety makes for a much less compelling story than late-season heroism. It’s hard to avoid a sense of anticlimax. You hear people ranting about what’s holding us back or what’s standing in our way, as if each defeat nudges us a little further away from our rightful place. It’s the kind of huffy uppitiness which pops up on your Facebook feed amid the photos of other people’s pets and children, a bit like when you’re stood in a hotel lobby, becalmed by pot pourri and muzak, and the lift doors ping open to reveal a red-faced man swearing angrily at a wasp.

Perhaps, though, the price of the achievement is exactly that anticlimax. Perhaps the effort is such that it simply can’t be sustained over a full season, or at least not by a squad of players we can actually afford, and perhaps the kind of effort which could be sustained for so long would bring merely endless narrow defeats and the kind of spirit-sapping relegation you’re probably old enough to remember too. From my far-away place, it seems undeniable that what these seasons have lacked are stories of the kind we’ll hand down to the next generation, but they nevertheless rank among the most successful in our history. You could argue that mediocrity is spreading through the Premier League like a sneaky wee in a particularly expensive hot-tub, but the achievement still stands, testament as much as anything else to the staggering competence and clarity of our owners. The point where West Brom sacked Tony Pulis and got straight on the phone to Slaven Bilic, who’d spent his season until then as a ghostly, tormented presence on the London Stadium touchline, guiding West Ham to a position below West Brom in the table before himself getting fired, showed how much we have to be grateful for. It oughtn’t to be that unusual to have some money, a coherent plan and a well-filled contacts book, rather than just the first of the three, but it evidently still is.

4. So, Newcastle arrive as the tenth best team in the country…which, well, yes. Competence and clarity on the playing side, if not elsewhere. This season feels like it’ll be the subject of pub quiz questions in years to come: name the seventeen teams which didn’t get relegated from the Premier League in 2017/18. Nobody’ll remember either of us. (Yes, I know you will.) That’s both good and bad. This is one of those games which really needs to be a seven-goal thriller to stand any chance of getting any higher than next-to-last on Match of the Day. We’ve blended into the background, them and us. Or, perhaps, we’ve sort of made ourselves at home.

It isn’t a seven-goal thriller, but it does its best. With the 1881 bashing away raucously to our left, we begin with a sunny energy that yields the opener within three minutes, a fine move starting with the inventive Will Hughes on the right, benefiting from a lucky break in the box and finishing with Abdoulaye Doucoure teeing up  Roberto Pereyra to the ball tidily home. We look a real force, solid at the back and urgent in the middle, aggressive in attack. Etienne Capoue is imperious, Will Hughes is impish, Roberto Pereyra is pure mischief. Pereyra gets in and is foiled by the keeper, Capoue has his follow-up deflected narrowly wide; Andre Gray is denied after sneaking down the side of a static defence.

Newcastle simply haven’t turned up. The only threat of any significance comes from Shelvey’s raking passes from deep, ambitious attempts to pick out runners that keep Cathcart and Kabasele on their toes. We’re thoroughly on top as Pereyra twists and turns before lofting a cross to the far post for Gray to add the second while defenders stand and gawp like tourists on Go Jetters. Some Newcastle fans leave at that point; you can’t blame them preferring a pint in a sunny beer garden to sitting through a complete capitulation.

If the penalty goes in, the rest is surely plain sailing. The penalty doesn’t go in. The offence – an ill-advised and rather clumsy attempt to win the ball from Gray – and the award both seem to happen in slow motion, and Troy Deeney’s kick is similarly lame. Momentarily, he appears certain to score on the rebound but that’s smothered too…and suddenly, there’s at least the prospect of it being a different game than the one we thought we had.

5. The second half is absolutely ridiculous. Like the health warning on a packet of fags, a reminder that this football lark isn’t all fun and frolics; by the end, we’re all gaunt and wrung out, and most of the players have collapsed onto the turf like the losing team in a Cup Final. That Newcastle are less terrible, less absent, is to be expected. Our reaction is a defensive rearguard so resolutely negative that we barely register a goal attempt in the entire forty-five minutes. The one attempt I can recall comes from Pereyra, lazily slicing a half-volley high and wide, and he’s immediately substituted for such impertinence and ill-discipline. Well, not quite immediately, for Newcastle pull one back in between, Perez sliding in at the far post to convert with perfect precision.

6. That substitution is followed by another, switching to three at the back and one up front, the ineffective Deeney withdrawn for Adrian Mariappa to low-level disgruntlement from the stands. It strikes me as being the kind of decision that you have to make as a manager, and for which you either get copious blame or next-to-no credit, depending on whether or not your team holds out for victory. That said, it also strikes me that you need to tread a little carefully, for paying punters are much more forgiving of mistakes stemming from positive intent than the other way around.

And I mean, bloody hell…you’ve got to keep some sort of perspective. At the point where you’re taking off both strikers to defend an end-of-season lead at home, you’re at risk of losing people altogether. Hell, maybe you’ve already lost quite a few of them. On such a beautiful day, it feels almost anti-social, like lighting a massive bonfire without warning the neighbours to take in their washing; it’s football dragged from the freezing wastelands of January. Richarlison replaces Gray, who for all his faults is simply built for the task of chasing down lost causes and still appears to have some running left in him, while Hughes is so exhausted he’s practically unable to stand. The Brazilian makes a fleeting pretence of going up front before tucking in to reinforce the midfield…and, yes, we do indeed seem to be playing 5-5-0 at home against Newcastle. Jesus. I double-check to make sure that we haven’t had a player sent off while I wasn’t paying attention. Nope.

The remainder is about as much fun as you’d expect 5-5-0 to be. We wait, tensed and lost in thought, for the announcement of injury time and the inevitable Newcastle equaliser in its final minute. It would be very easy to lose the detail amid condemnation of the tactics, but we shouldn’t, for Cathcart and Kabasele are truly magnificent and Mariappa isn’t far behind; Cathcart, in particular, appears drawn by an invisible force to the precise square yard where he needs to be, snuffing out danger as it flickers into life on countless occasions. The equaliser doesn’t come. In fact, Newcastle are denied at every turn. It’s a genuinely heroic effort, albeit one perhaps suited to another, more momentous occasion.

7. So it’s an odd conclusion, really. Even beyond Doucoure’s rather ill-judged pre-match farewell message and Javi Gracia’s apparent uncertainty over what the summer will hold, it feels emphatically like an end to something. Whatever the circumstances, I’m not sure that you can be so utterly negative in front of your home fans and expect them to forget about it. It’s a taste that lingers, it’s a debt that you’ll have to pay eventually. The Pozzos aren’t the sort to be swayed very much by public opinion, but a reinvention of some sort is required before July, a fresh start, a new vision. More of this won’t do…he said loftily, as if he had a divine right to turn up at the last minute and tell you lot what to think about it all.

And more of this shouldn’t really have to do. As Leicester’s title win fades into history, replaced by extravagantly (in all senses) attacking football with little care for defensive detail, there’s surely a vacancy for another side that picks a small handful of essential things and does them exceptionally well, does them with an intensity and a consistency that others can’t match. Does them to the point of being an art-form, as Leicester did. Does them to the point of being an absolute menace, as Watford once did.

It’s time to write some stories, isn’t it?

Karnezis 3, Janmaat 3, *Cathcart 4*, Kabasele 4, Holebas 3, Hughes 3, Doucoure 3, Capoue 4, Pereyra 4, Deeney 2, Gray 3; Deulofeu 2, Mariappa 4, Richarlison 2