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Bristol City 0 Watford 0 (25/11/2020) 26/11/2020

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.

There’s a point a minute or so into Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” when it becomes clear that it’s less of a pop song and more of a collective attempt at levitation. Each of the dozen or so members, even those who could easily get away with slouching at the back and holding down the groove, are up on the balls of their feet. Every beat is lifted up into the air, raised skywards in an attempt at take-off. Every moment ascends another step on some kind of cosmic stairway, and you can put an ironic “man” on the end of that sentence if you like, but don’t feel obliged. Sometimes it glides and soars as if it’s hit a thermal. Always, it ascends, ascends; upward, upward. Hedonism and spirituality collide. The entire thing is an act of devotion, of pure ecstatic belief.


(No, I haven’t been getting out much. You?)

There’s a point in a perfect football match when it becomes clear that it’s less of a sporting contest and more of a collective attempt at – look, I’m going to say “transcendence” here, so brace yourself – transcendence. Or it might, if you were standing aloof from it all, if you weren’t screaming yourself hoarse, lost in the moment. Evening kickoff, difficult opponents, vital points at stake, seesawing scoreline. The way that the sound seems to become liquid, thicker and slower than the night air; the way that it seems to cascade in waves down the stands towards the pitch. The way that the game and the crowd’s reaction to it become locked in a spiralling dance, ascending, ascending. The way that the goal which has been promised for ten or fifteen or more minutes finally arrives, and the way that nothing else matters in those precious, flammable seconds.

(And very much not the way that those precious, flammable seconds are undermined by the possibility of having to stand around in the cold for five minutes while someone stares at a monitor and draws lines to decide that your centre forward’s nose was ahead of the last defender’s arse.)

Clearly, most football isn’t like that. Most football isn’t like that at all. Most football involves sitting in dampish cold while a bloke three rows behind bellows “LINO! WHERE’S HE GOING? WHERE’S HE GOING?” as the opposition left-back takes a throw in his own half. But the possibility is always there, latent, imagined. (Of course, sometimes that’s the bloody worst of it: there’s a version of hell in which our attempted, imagined comeback at the Emirates in the last half of the last game of last season stretches on into eternity, always just out of reach. Descending, descending. We get the third in about a millennium’s time, fail to get the fourth in ever more torturous ways.) But the possibility…sometimes that’s nearly enough on its own. Just the thought of burying a week’s worth of cares in celebration of a last-minute winner. What a wonderful thing it can be.

All of which is a long-winded and pretentious – cosmic stairway, for pity’s sake! – way of saying that football in front of empty stands really doesn’t float my boat. It made a certain amount of sense last season, when it was a way of finishing what’d been started, which unfortunately, in our case, turned out to be the production of a massive steaming pile of poo. But starting afresh with no identifiable end point has seemed very odd to me, and especially jarring contrasted with the boisterous atmosphere at the Pilot Field, and I must admit that I lost interest some time ago.

I’m not a “Football Without Fans…” fundamentalist. As a very, very occasional attendee nowadays, I think I forfeit the right to be too opinionated (and that’s obviously a rule which is respected by everyone right across everywhere, especially social media, so that’s excellent). I salute my co-editor for covering it all so well when there’s been nothing away from the pitch in which to dress it up. (I also salute him for letting me continue with the title of “co-editor” when I only write one piece a year, and that of a generally grumblish quality, and never actually edit anything.) And I applaud the club for making all of this seem in any way fun, when it might so easily be as enjoyable as eating raw spaghetti with a plastic teaspoon at the birthday party of someone you had a bit of an unresolved argument with a few months ago. But I haven’t seen us play since the Luton game, which was like watching a grindcore band play an acoustic set, disconcertingly pleasant. I have no idea whatsoever where Bristol City are in the table until someone tells me. I couldn’t pick Billy Troost-Ekong out of a line-up unless the rest of that line-up comprised Derek Payne, Andy Hessenthaler and Worrell Sterling. I’ll be your host tonight.

There’s an obvious gag here: this was football which deserved to be played behind closed doors. That old Shankly quip about closing the curtains if Everton were playing down the bottom of the garden. But there’s something lurking underneath that too, a sense of how football re-shapes itself when it isn’t so conscious of the public gaze. It’s hard to believe that Bristol City could be quite this cautious in front of a stadium full of their own supporters; unless the opposition is particularly illustrious, and sometimes even then, home fans tend to want to see their team do more than line up in defensive banks. They don’t touch the ball for the first two minutes, content to get their shape and sit tight. In real life, you just can’t do that without a rising restlessness in the stands.

And for us, well, there’s more than a whiff of the training ground, of football played in theory, of diagrams and flip-charts. That stuff has its place, of course, but there’s a curious lack of a nervous edge which doesn’t appear entirely healthy, and hasn’t since Nigel Pearson had us all getting in touch with our inner chi. Again, supporters generate a restlessness which tends to raise the pace of it all, and perhaps to prompt someone to do something a little more daring. Tellingly, Hornet Hive pairs the ever-excellent Jon Marks with Tommy Mooney, and you can sense his own restlessness through the wires, and you can see the glint in his eye even though he never appears on screen. Oh, for a bit of that.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though, and we wouldn’t want to miss any of the excitement. We begin with an awful lot of the ball and a light simmer of attacking, Jeremy Ngakia and Domingos Quina combining brightly on the right; the sum total of it is ‘mildly promising’ and ‘mildly promising’ is fine for now. As will become the pattern, however, City use thin fragments of possession to much greater effect, and Ngakia’s defensive weaknesses are quickly exposed by a break down his flank which ends with Semenyo shooting over when he ought to do better. There is to be much carping at the home side’s conservatism, but let’s be clear about one thing from the off: this is a game they should’ve won. They executed their gameplan with a compact intensity; we executed ours as if it was just one of several options on the table, a browsed buffet.

More football happened. I try to resist the urge to do some light pottering; my office is in desperate need of a tidy. I notice that Daniel Bentley, City’s flamboyantly-clad keeper, has a beard and try to think of other keepers with beards. It’s not a very beardy position, really, is it? Is there a reason for that, I wonder? While I’m chewing this over, the advertising hoardings flash up “BEARD” along the length of the pitch and I momentarily have a really unnerving sense of Truman syndrome.

We probably should be ahead by half-time, but we don’t do nearly enough to make that actually happen. I feel as if I’ve written that sentence before. Quina darts onto a stray cross-field throw and is denied by a saving tackle; he later flashes a shot over after a sharp turn, and comfortably wins the ‘man of the match’ award simply for doing more to make things happen than anyone else. There are moderately good things going on in various areas of the pitch: Nathaniel Chalobah is reasonably authoritative in front of the back four; Craig Cathcart and Christian Kabasele win their battles comfortably; James Garner is positive with the ball and supplies the half’s one moment of potentially decisive quality, drilling a pass into Andre Gray, before Ismaila Sarr’s shot is deflected over. We end the half with Cathcart only just failing to direct a header inside the post from a free kick, and a feeling that we can and must do more.

Half-time lucky hot chocolate. Distracted, I fail to stir it sufficiently; it has unpalatable powdery lumps in it as a consequence. Metaphor klaxon.

We can and must do more, and we don’t, by and large. I have yet to type João Pedro’s name and only typed those of Gray and Sarr a moment ago; the involvement of the front three is fitful at best, non-existent at worst. Of them, Gray tries more and fails more; he thoroughly fills the grid squares for well executed bad ideas, badly executed good ideas and badly executed bad ideas, leaving the fourth square untouched. I’ve no doubt that there will be those who’d like me to be more critical of that, and it’s true that he has the first touch of a mountain goat, but I’d prefer to shine the spotlight on the anonymity elsewhere: Sarr, in particular, coasts blankly through the game as if a bit bored by it all. You’re not the only one, sunshine. It isn’t a matter of expecting more from him especially; it isn’t anything to do with reputations or price tags. You need much more from those positions, whoever’s filling them. Without it, you’re effectively playing one up front, with no width.

In fact, it’s Sarr who has the half’s first threatening moment, racing onto a long ball from Ngakia, being forced slightly wide and seeing his cross-shot blocked. Part of this is about service, of course, and we really ought to have been able to supply more of those inviting balls down the side of City’s three-man defence. It’s true that we need the game to stretch in order to do that, but it does, and we don’t. The home side much more effectively exploit our weak points, with Semenyo targeting Ngakia and twice nearly creating the opening goal: the first of these, in which Ben Foster’s toe diverts a low-cross through the legs of the sliding Diedhiou in the six yard box, is perhaps the closest that the deadlock comes to being broken. Another shot slips past the far post, a header drifts onto the roof of the net.

We have one moment: Quina’s lovely, driven cross-field pass finding Sarr in space, his low cross half-cleared to the move’s originator on the penalty spot, only Bentley’s fingertips keeping out a fiercely-struck shot. It would’ve still been a poor return on possession, but it would’ve been a terrific and possibly match-winning goal nevertheless. We throw on Troy Deeney for the luckless Gray. We throw on Stipe Perica to join him for the last five minutes and have a brief holiday in the land of hitting it up to the big fellas; it wouldn’t last, but it momentarily feels as refreshing as stretching your legs after a long car journey. City force corners in injury time, Foster clawing out a sliced volley from Rowe as it threatens to loop over him. It ends. Back in the studio, everyone tries to think of something constructive to say, and largely succeeds. It’s an away point against a potential rival, after all. It looks like the club shop’s got some nice new mugs.

I’d expected to have little to say about it all, having been so detached. Oddly, though, it’s all rather familiar: Hastings United have been using more or less this formation for nearly three seasons under Chris Agutter, and I’ve watched its trials, tribulations and, ultimately, triumphs over that time. The first full season was characterised by something very similar to what we saw last night: a tendency to gather and hoard possession without making opponents uncomfortable. Good football, constructive football, but not enough penetration of the penalty area, not enough presence in the box just to take a chance and sling it in. We reached and lost in the playoffs that season, and that felt about right.

The transition from that to potential champions was made, in no small part, through the recruitment of Ben Pope, a forward who thrives in the role of target man, who can hold the ball up, bring others into play. The kind of centre forward who earns his place even without his goal tally. Suddenly, we could hit it long, build play in the final third before our opponents had a chance to set themselves. Suddenly, he could drag defenders out of position, flick something into the path of a teammate running into that space. Suddenly, it was actually worth putting a cross into the box every now and again. And I say all of that not to make Andre Gray into a scapegoat, but merely to suggest that a formation which looks something of a lost cause currently, with a number of players disappearing into its cracks, can be made to work with some perseverance. It isn’t as if there aren’t players in the squad who could play that role, if fit, although it’d probably be nice for all concerned if there were some point in the rest of Troy’s life when we weren’t relying on him to hold the ball up. But still…drag it all up the pitch a bit, get the young bucks into danger areas, hit the final third faster and more decisively enough times to make your opponents nerves fray, and suddenly, it might all look less forlorn.

It needs that. Not because we’re entitled to anything this season. Mainly because this seems like an especially bad moment for football not to be fun. It’s supposed to elevate our lives, to lift our spirits, to make us smile. Ascending, ascending. If it just echoes the worries and insecurities we have rattling around our heads during the week, putting caution before courage, putting pragmatism before idealism, then it fails us all, just a bit. And there might even be fans there to feed on it, to feed back in turn. A new beginning. A few thousand can make plenty of noise, if they give it some socially-distanced welly. Especially if you give them something to shout about.

Foster 4, Femenia 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 3, Ngakia 2, Chalobah 3, Garner 3, *Quina 4*, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2, Gray 2
Subs: Deeney (for Gray, 66) 3, Troost-Ekong (for Ngakia, 82) NA, Perica (for João Pedro, 88) NA, Wilmot, Bachmann, Sierralta, Navarro, Crichlow, Phillips

Queens Park Rangers 1 Watford 1 (21/11/2020) 22/11/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Back in school we played something resembling basketball.  I say “something resembling” because whilst I’m no aficionado my understanding has always been that basketball is supposed to be a non-contact sport.  A quick google clarifies that there’s plenty of technically illegal contact which is only pulled up when it affects the game.

Which still paints a picture of scant resemblance to whatever it was that we were playing at school, particularly during periods where Mr Green got bored and wandered off to the adjoining gym.  The version of basketball that we played was amongst the more violent pursuits of my school career (though obviously not a patch on the impromptu game of murderball that decimated the village green at Finchingfield, Essex when coaches A and C made the ill-advised decision to coincide there for a lunch break on a geography field trip in 1986).

Other than the violence, the enduring memory of these (loosely) basketball sessions is Mr Green’s limited but persistent attempts to coach a bit of tactical awareness into his charges. On any changeover of possession (frequent), the subsequent charge down the court was given fuel by his bellow of “fast breeeeaaaaak” (this being the extent of the tactical input);  on arrival at the other end of the court of course having bypassed the utterly irrelevant central third entirely, neither attacking nor defending side knew what the hell to do or where to stand, and so looked for someone to collide with accordingly.

If you watched the first half today, you’ll know where this is going.

2- There’s been a degree of reflection and stock taking of the season so far during the international break.  My own view for what it’s worth, as these reports have probably reflected, is that us getting to where we’ve got to without being particularly convincing is a Good Thing.  If Vlad was giving the impression of thinking we were sorted there’d be a concern.  This isn’t the case at all, and as such woe betide the division when we get our shit together.

And part of that getting together of our shit involves sorting the attacking shape on which score it was difficult to be anything other than positive at the outset today.  The unwelcome absences through unspecified knocks of both Christian Kabasele and Tom Cleverley was offset by a much anticipated switch in formation that saw an out-and-out striker, Andre Gray in this case, inserted between the two forwards, Sarr and João Pedro, who’ve spearheaded the side for much of the season.  This at the cost of a midfielder…  it says something for the strength of our squad that we can carry injuries to Hughes, Cleverley and Dele-Bashiru and still have options in the centre, but it may be that Cleverley’s injury accelerated the switch in formation.

This optimism was only fuelled by an opening two minutes which saw the Hornets win a corner and Ben Wilmot fly in unchallenged to flick home.  For all that this was his first senior goal for the ‘orns, Ben Wilmot attacking the box from a set piece is becoming a trademark Thing, witness two chances at Barnsley, his celebrated winner for Swansea against Cardiff and his goal for England’s U21 side on his full debut over the international break.  I slumped back into my seat to enjoy the happy inevitability of a comfortable victory.

3-  A state of calm which lasted about as long as it took for the home side to make their way back up the pitch to find the lively Bright Osayi-Samuel free on the right of the box, Cathcart interceding urgently to concede a corner.  From this the ball bounced around in our box alarmingly, a clean-shaven Étienne Capoue cleared off the line before a pass meandered its way across the face of goal oblivious to the anxiety it was provoking in Hertfordshire and beyond.

Quicker than you could shout “Fast breeeeeak” Kiko, in miles of space on our right throughout the first half, was winning a free kick from which Gray glanced a header wide.  Two minutes later a tremendous ball from deep from Wilmot found Kiko again; he was felled by Wallace near the corner flag, and Troost-Ekong repeated Wilmot’s trick of thundering into the box unimpeded but sent his header carelessly wide.

Such was the tone of the first half.  Chaotic, haphazard, both sides making chances but not quite having the quality to convert them.  You’d put it down to luck if this wasn’t a recurring pattern but Sarr in particular seemed hesitant in front of goal, his decisiveness not on par with the rest of his game in another, more concerning emerging trend.

And the shape wasn’t really working either.  Removing a midfielder was always going to ask a lot of Capoue and Chalobah and while Nate hurtled around manfully to varying effect Caps was passive.  We’ve seen him do this before, earlier in his Watford career… retreat into himself and let the game happen to him rather than running it as he could and should.  There was, perhaps inevitably, a big gap between the deep-sitting midfield and the forward line, and whilst it never stopped us making stuff (and indeed the preponderance of long balls may have been a deliberate strategy aimed at turning around a rearguard low on concentration) it both prevented us from overwhelming our opposition and laid ourselves open to counterattack.  Dominic Ball, a punchy Rangers midfielder whose aggressive display may have been fuelled by his release from the Vic as a youngster, charged through the centre of the pitch unchallenged on the half hour before earning a soft free kick from the diligent but often outnumbered Sema which Barbet put narrowly wide.

It was huge fun, and there was a sense that the next goal would be significant, that if we could grab it then we really could overwhelm our opposition, something we’re capable of but haven’t managed to achieve in any game this season.  Instead the half ended with João Pedro doing his thing of floating in off the left flank and bisecting QPR’s defence with a perfect through ball (for Sarr this time, for Ngakia against Boro).  Sarr should have scored, but his shot was parried at the near post.

4- There’s a reason that cancer screening in general is confined to a limited number of types of cancer.  Cancer screening is reasonably successful in that the tests themselves are reliable.  The probability of a false positive, a diagnosis of cancer in the absence of cancer, is low.

But the vast majority of positive diagnoses, in general, would be false.  This is the false positive paradox….  the test is good, but the vast majority of positive screens are misleading (“false positives”) because of the people being screened, the vast majority don’t have cancer.  A small proportion of a very big number is still a big number in absolute terms (more stuff here if this is more interesting than my report).

This is at the root of why Ivić had to change something at half time.  It’s tempting to look at a first half that, if chaotic, we came out of at the very least level on points and ahead on goals and then a second which was pretty bloody awful and ask “why didn’t he just stick with it?”.  Easy in hindsight.  We had to change something because for all that our defence tightened up a good deal in the first half and kept Rangers at bay for the most part, a small probability of failure is still significant if you’re rolling the dice a large number of times.

In hindsight (again), maybe Garner over Quina.  Maybe.  Given Garner’s delivery from set pieces in particular and QPR’s evident vulnerability in that regard.  But competing here is the need to sustain the attacking impetus, to find a combination that exploits our undoubted attacking potential, to make us more than the sum of our parts.  GT often said that you have to try things sometimes and Quina could be that spark, but was sadly lacking again here.  I’d expected him to drop into midfield with Troy and Sarr operating more as a pair, but Quina seemed based on the left where the slightly unfortunate João Pedro had been.  He looked horribly anxious, too often giving the ball away under no pressure and then charging after it in an attempt to redeem himself.  Troy, meanwhile, held the ball up ok and executed a number of tidy touches and lay offs, but wasn’t involved enough and wasn’t assertive enough.  Perversely.  Not all his fault but we needed a bully, we didn’t get one.

5- It wasn’t one-way traffic, not completely.  Looking for more control there were good signs early in the half as Ken, Troy and Quina worked it down the left only for Sarr to finish poorly.  Wilmot yet again got himself free in the box to meet a corner but headed wide on the hour.  Sema rolled a ball across the edge of the box, too far in front of Troy, Sarr fired over.

But what had looked like control retreated into a passive, stodgy performance without much threat at all.  Some of this is on us, but QPR grabbed hold of the game and kept coming and kept coming.  Substitute Dykes provided a physical presence and demanded some fine defending from Troost-Ekong from a corner.  From a deep right wing free kick Masterton headed across the box and off the bar.  Whereas we’d achieved composure at the back for much of the first half we were increasingly being pulled apart…  a ball in from the left demanded more fine defending from Cathcart, belying three games and a knock with Northern Ireland with a fine display here.

But it was coming and it came with around 15 minutes to go, some decent passing and movement freeing Chair on the left to roll the ball inside Ben Foster’s far post, a precise finish.  What threat of a winner there was then came from the home side… Foster clawed impossibly from underneath his bar, Troy cleared.  Dykes propelled the ball in with his hand after a fine cross from Watfordian Tom Carroll… clear handball, but they were there to execute it.  Chalobah could have been penalised for a tangle with Barbet in the box. We wouldn’t have had much to argue about had they found the winner.

They didn’t, and there are positives to take from this.  A point at Loftus Road might look like a much better point in a month or so’s time than it does now, and our centre-backs in particular stood up well to a varied attacking threat.  We’re still less than the sum of our parts though, it still looks wonky and botched together.  This isn’t a well-oiled machine that pieces slip in and out of, not yet.

But given that there’s no sense in criticising Ivić for trying different things.  It didn’t work today, we got an away point anyway just about, but we made a load of chances.  It’s not like there’s nothing there.  And while Ivić keeps trying to find a way to fit the pieces together we need to be patient if we don’t want to morph into the triggerhappy fanbase that lazy assessment of the Pozzo approach to head coaches paints the club as.


Foster 4, Femenía 3,  Sema 3, Wilmot 4, Troost-Ekong 4, *Cathcart 4*, Capoue 2, Chalobah 3, Sarr 2, Gray 3, João Pedro 3
Subs:   Deeney (for Gray, 45) 2, Quina (for João Pedro, 45) 1, Garner, Sierralta, Ngakia, Murray, Navarro, Crichlow, Bachmann

Watford 3 Coventry City 2 (07/11/2020) 08/11/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Today was a good day.

I went for a walk this morning.  Cold, sunny days are a fine thing and with rain forecast for tomorrow and dark evenings even crueller during lockdown the circumstances had to be capitalised on.  In a tight, defensive game against a challenging opponent you don’t miss chances like this.

So I walked across the fields towards the next village.  This is an advantage of living rurally, social distancing isn’t as much of a challenge when you can see folk coming from half a mile away.  I hadn’t intended to go as far as the next village, a muddy mile and a bit away, but the sun was shining and the folk coming the other way, nodding a smile as wide berths were afforded, were unusually armed with coffee cups.

Following the trail I ended up outside the village pub, doors closed of course as they would have been before midday in any case.  But a trailer had taken root, selling cofee, cakes, sandwiches, local produce.  I resisted the cake but went for a large coffee, then got a piece of cake for free having waited what the proprietor deemed an unreasonable time for my order standing in the sunshine as I was catching breath before heading back across the fields.  The best of both worlds, the moral victory of having resisted cake combined with, you know, cake.

Today was a good day.

2- I did consider writing something about Wednesday night.  Largely, admittedly, out of curiosity at the reaction this would prompt from my co-editor, sceptical as he is about the practice of writing match reports of stuff you’ve watched on a screen at the best of times let alone when the feed cuts after 35 minutes.

This isn’t the best of times of course, otherwise writing about matches watched on the telly wouldn’t be a thing. In any case, it’s good to see Hornets Hive up and running again, Steve Palmer and Steven Finn joining Emma Saunders in the studio and upping the already tremendous coverage a notch – Finn may be a cricketer, and regular readers know my views on minority sports, but both he and Smoker are articulate and insightful.  The collapse of the feed during the Stoke game notwithstanding, the club have done a tremendous job with this.  Go onto the vast majority of other club’s messageboards and browse the thread titled “iFollow” for some context reflecting how good we’ve got it.

3- As for the football…  nearly twelve months after his last League start Andre Gray was named ahead of João Pedro, whilst England U21 call-up Ben Wilmot and Will Hughes, reportedly the victim of a knock in training also dropped out.

And the first half was…  OK.  We dominated possession, and did so further up the pitch than has been the norm.  Still without enough of a target, still all rather too polite, still not beating any doors down but knocking firmly before standing and waiting to be seen to.  There was a threat, often through Sarr down the right, but it was rarely sustained;  too often, with Sarr pulling right, there wasn’t enough in the centre.  The Senegalese winger broke right early on, Gray didn’t quite get a touch at the near post and Cleverley shot over coming in on the left.

Coventry, all in Sky Blue with an ornate shirt design that blurred when in motion to create the impression of having spilled a pint down their front, were an odd mix of interesting looking bits that didn’t quite hang together.  A hardworking backline that would nonetheless be beaten three times and could have been beaten more.  A tidy midfield that were good enough to stay in the game and make a chance should they get lucky.  But they’d need to get lucky.  A mobile forward line that wasn’t particularly clinical.

But they were certainly good enough to make us sit slightly uncomfortably, making chances the match of ours with far less possession.  A tremendous cross from Giles on the left found the profligate Biyamou, who headed wide;  Giles was the best player on the pitch in the first half, arguably over the 90 minutes and such is the focus on our need for a left-back that every left back who looks half decent against us is going to be pencilled onto the list – the more so if they’re on loan from a Premier League club.  Later a Hamer cross found men spare at the far post.  Then a right wing cross demanded a fine block from Kabasele.

The Hornets took too long to turn defence into attack. This is something that Nathaniel Chalobah was really strong at during the near-mythical five-game start to his second Watford career under Marco Silva; he was on the bench here today though, and as against Stoke Étienne Capoue took a while to get up to speed, slightly ponderous during the opening ninety minutes and often guilty of not progressing the play quickly enough.

Nonetheless, the Hornets picked up speed at last as the half drew to a close.  Sarr burned down the right, forcing a block from the nervous Marosi.  A neat backheel from James Garner released Kiko whose far post cross earned one of a series of corners.  From here Cleverley cut inside to drive at the near post.  A further vicious Garner corner bounced dangerously in the box.  We didn’t want the half time whistle.

4- The second half began with Callum O’Hare, eyecatching here as he had been during our League Cup game last season, forcing a great stop from Ben Foster but on the whole we started the half sharper, quicker, moving the ball more urgently.

This was in danger of fizzling out when Ken Sema’s cross from the left found a confused way in, probably involving Andre Gray.  For all that Sarr and Kiko/Ngakia down the right have provided a more eye-catching threat, Ken Sema’s stealth attack down the left is increasingly remarkable and effective.  At one point during the second half as Sema’s slippery physicality saw him rumble past yet another hapless opponent Tommy Mooney on comms exclaimed “Ken Sema is quickly becoming my favourite player of all time“, the hyperbole of the last three words reflecting the childish joy that the Swede instils in grizzled ex-pros as much as more easily won supporters.  Honest, dynamic, bold, strong, clever and effective, there’s nothing not to like there at the moment.

City were rattled, and the game should have been over.  Sarr forced Østigard into a panicky yellow-card.  Capoue, now with his eye in and picking up revs, sent a screamer into the path of Sema who released Gray.  A conversion here, a striker’s finish, and he’s up and running but he took the shot on his right foot from the left of the box and Marosi saved.

And yet suddenly we were behind.  It’s easy to ring your hands at the defensive failings that contributed to the goals and they were certainly significant, but we were unlucky too. Gustavo Hamer’s header shouldn’t have been allowed to happen but it was an aimless, rather sulky effort with a hint of “oh screw this, I’ll just whack it towards the goal” about it.  Ben Foster was caught on his heels and suddenly City were level.  A minute later Tyler Walker was finishing clinically…  there was a foul on Sema in the build up, and a suggestion of offside as Biamou released his partner but after Wednesday night we’re hardly in a position to complain about the balance of refereeing decisions.  In any event, such vagaries are uncontrollable random variables to be treated like fortunate or unfortunate rebounds off the woodwork.  What you can control is how you deal, and it was all too easy for City.

It could have gone down a horrible wormhole from there, but Ismaïla Sarr, in contrast to his rather sulky demeanour in the first half, took the bull by the horns, shoved the ball down the right and pegged after it.  He won a corner, Troost-Ekong hammered onto Garner’s delivery and we were level.  We could do with more of that brutal urgency when we’re not smarting at going behind.

5- Today was a good day.

On a bad day, maybe we don’t get that equaliser and the game disappears into a miserable, frustrating defeat.  On a bad day, maybe James Garner is pulled up for his challenge in the box prior to the penalty – a coulda rather than shoulda been a foul.  But definitely a coulda.  But today was a good day.  Troy was on by this stage, half the man he used to be but twice as mobile for it;  despite this Ismaïla Sarr picked the ball up and rolled in his third strike in four games. At almost exactly the same time, news broke from the United States that the racist, misogynist, narcissistic, malevolent manchild in the White House had finally been disposed of, and a great big party started.  Today was a good day.

It should have been more comfortable.  70+ million people voted for him, which I find baffling.  Nonetheless, the world breathes again.  Similarly, this should have been more comfortable.  We’re not yet as potent as we should be;  that will come, but it needs to…  we should be able to ride a freak goal more comfortably than we did today.  It shouldn’t matter.

However.  Second in the league despite still being less than the sum of our parts, despite only rarely looking convincing.  The proximity of the chasing pack notwithstanding – we’d have been 8th had it finished 1-2 – we’re in a good place.

Today was a good day.


Foster 3, Femenía 2,  *Sema 5*, Cathcart 2, Troost-Ekong 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 3, Garner 4, Cleverley 4, Sarr 4, Gray 3
Subs:   Ngakia (for Femenía, 67) 3, Deeney (for Gray, 74) 3, Chalobah (for Garner, 87) NA, Sierralta, Quina, João Pedro, Bachmann

Barnsley 1 Watford 0 (31/10/2020) 01/11/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- I didn’t want us to get relegated.

I know that there’s lots to dislike about the top flight, lots to dislike about football generally I suppose, and a train of thought which might lead a supporter of a moderately sized club to wonder what the point is if you think too hard about the likely ceiling to any ambition of such a club in the Premier League.

The trick is not to think about that too much and to enjoy the journey, a journey that was a lot of fun in the Premier League, every game a big event so no, didn’t want to get relegated.  But… there were silver linings to the development, albeit silver linings that would have been more pronounced had Stuff been Normal.  More games, for instance.  And more midweek games under the lights.

And the chance to revisit old haunts like Barnsley.  One of the places that we’ve all been to a thousand times, but not for at least five years (seven in Barnsley’s case) that would have been good to see again.  Remembering that time when Paul Furlong dragged Gerry Taggart half the length of the pitch in the dying minutes to win a precious three points in 1994.  Or the time when we froze our nuts off in the name of a 1-0 win in 2000. Or the time when Pete Fincham…  well, if you were there you don’t need reminding.  And, well, many more less memorable jaunts that sort of blend into one in your mind’s eye.  That’s what the Championship’s like, that’s what you get.

What you also get is shitty 1-0 away defeats that make you want to chew your arm off in frustration.

2- Barnsley opened at a blistering pace.  We’ve seen some aggressive pressing this season but this was something else altogether, rabid and ferocious.  William Troost-Ekong’s third-minute booking was a bit harsh, but it reflected the degree to which we were already rattled.  The home side capitalised… a slack pass from Wilmot didn’t reach Capoue, Alex Mowatt seized it and pinged a tremendous shot into the top corner.  It wasn’t that far away from Ben Foster in truth as his reaction betrayed but it was a hell of a strike.

The game changed immediately.  It seemed unlikely that the Tykes could maintain that level of pressing and it stopped straight away, either because it was physically unsustainable or because the goal changed the requirement or a bit of both.  The game settled into a pattern in which Watford had most of the possession and more of the chances but impotently, lobbing missiles from a distance rather that getting down and dirty where the fists were flying.  Once again, jabbing with quick counterattacks that never quite came off but rarely applying concerted pressure.

It would be tempting to praise Barnsley’s strategy, a strategy that after all earned them three points and that such praise is justified in the sense that a limited team played the hand it had to the best of it’s ability.  They were a bit rubbish though;  on the few occasions when we were able to sustain possession in the final third the backline was quickly rattled.  They were lucky, too…  our delivery from wide was manifestly inadequate, but when deflections came they were kind to the home side, generally helping rather than fooling the goalkeeper.

But that’s not good enough.  Being a bit unlucky to lose to a poor side, albeit given the challenge of going behind early to a game underdog, not good enough.  Not laying much of a punch on them, not good enough.  At all.

3- The announcement of the first team came with it the welcome news that Will Hughes and Andre Gray were both deemed ready enough to be named on the bench.  As we’ve progressed steadily at the start of this season there’s been the knowledge that we have so much more to come, and up front in particular but Étienne Capoue’s performance served as a reminder that it won’t maybe be as simple as that.  He’s been out a while, sure, his head must have been all over the place, this was very different to the Premier League fare that he’s been more than a match for for the last five years.

But he looked like a footballer with amnesia operating on muscle memory.  He had a ragged opening half hour, not so much misplacing passes as swinging them wildly into touch (albeit with the aid of a blustery wind) and then standing still, blinking, with the confusion of someone who’d had a mental block and forgotten which key he should have been pressing.  As he got into the groove he improved a bit, slinging countless long-range passes from deep over a congested midfield looking for Sarr galloping down the right.  Always from deep though, and here was part of the problem.

The quandary was reminiscent of a home game against Southampton, the Shane Long after however many seconds game (only 18 months ago, kids) in which, minus the suspended Deeney we had the same challenge of going behind early, having nothing to hit long and a stodgy midfield that could suck the ball up for ten minutes at a time if you let it.  Here our attacks weren’t without threat, but it was a hypothetical threat too often.  Sarr and João Pedro are both tremendous but they’re both forwards rather than strikers.  In the first half all of our threat comes down the right again with Kiko, god love him, bombing on and he and Sarr swipping and swapping and overlapping before putting in crosses of variable quality to nobody in particular.  That’s the problem with Sarr playing up front, he’s always going to be drawn to the wing and if he’s putting the ball in, who’s going to get on the end of it?  It should be João Pedro of course, but we’re asking a lot of a youngster, effectively to be the striker he isn’t, the lone striker which isn’t an easy thing to be and he’s proving not terribly adept at it.  Meanwhile whilst Tom Cleverley does a decent job of providing bodily support in the middle but you’ve still got a formation in which you rarely get more than three or four players into the attacking third because the support isn’t quick enough and the ball doesn’t stick enough.

4- We start the second half at a much higher tempo.  If we’d sustained that we might have got the break and the point that we probably deserved; as above, it doesn’t take much for Barnsley to wobble.  Capoue and João Pedro combine and Sema is caught by what must have been a tight offside.  Kiko overlaps on the right again, his cross is deflected into the keeper’s arms.  As an aside… Valérien Ismaël offered enough to encourage Barnsley fans about their new coach (who despite a few surprising “Valérien who?” retorts had a long playing career at a high level and also played for Crystal Palace).  The introduction of Clark Odour on the left flank bottled Kiko up and shut down our most reliable threat.

Nonetheless… Cleverley should have scored when getting onto the end of a move on the left side of the box and opting to go with his right foot as the ball came to him quickly.  Ben Wilmot got onto the end of two corners and should have scored on the second attempt but the ball bounced over the bar…  partly at fault for the goal and culpable here, Wilmot was nonetheless the most impressive of the back three, assertive and proactive.  A difficult afternoon, but no doubt we have a player here.

5- It will get better.  Ivic continues to encourage both with his candid assessment of where we are and with his tactical flexibility.  The switch that saw us change formation to go with three up top as Gray came on to replace Troost-Ekong was ineffective on this occasion, Gray needs minutes in his legs to get up to speed, but feels like a much more sustainable long-term bet with Sarr and João Pedro either side of a proper striker.  We’re not very far away from being effective, there are bits that are really good being scuppered by the bits that aren’t.  We’re making chances, we have a threat and we’re pretty solid.  It’ll come.

But it needs to.  This wasn’t good enough.


Foster 3, *Femenía 3*,  Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Wilmot 3, Capoue 2, Chalobah 2, Cleverley 3, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2
Subs:   Garner (for Chalobah, 66) 2, Gray (for Troost-Ekong, 76) NA, Hughes (for Cleverley 82) NA, Ngakia, Kabasele, Quina, Bachmann

Wycombe Wanderers 1 Watford 1 (27/10/2020) 28/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- It’s 22:20 on a school night.  We’ve just drawn 1-1 at Wycombe.  You’re damn right this is going to be straight to the point.  None of your drawn-out meandering intros today.  No Sir.  This is a no-bullshit report.

2- And we needed a no-bullshit performance.  A performance that was capable of absorbing what Wycombe could throw at us, meeting the physical challenges head on and letting the quality tell.  We didn’t get one.  Not that we appeared complacent, nor lacking in effort particularly.  But the weaknesses of our team thus far, such as they are and bearing in mind that we’re third in the league, lost one game, conceded four goals and so on and so forth were cast into sharp relief.

3- And cast into sharp relief by a Wycombe side who were far more impressive, focussed and effective than their record hitherto had suggested.  They hurtled around doing the high press thing like shopping trolleys crashing around a slippery car park, not giving us a moment’s peace and, without being dirty, risking physical injury if approached tentatively or half-heartedly.  Both their full-backs caused us issues, Grimmer giving Sema a good old game down the right and Jacobson delivering quality set pieces.  Kashket snapped around feeding off knock downs and chasing everything down.  They had enough about them to make you wonder quite how they hadn’t earned any points until now.

Most of all, they had the game’s dominant player in Adebayo Akinfenwa,  making his first start in the second tier at the age of 38.  A sixteen stone force of nature, almost unplayable and completely brilliant.  And exactly what we were missing for the most part – a focal point to hold the ball up, provide some welly and provide the facility for our attacks to drop anchor rather than needing to be fleet and precise.  Akinfenwa’s in a white shirt, we win the game.

4- As it is, we are happy to be goalless at the break.  Not to say lucky… there’s nothing lucky about your goalkeeper being completely brilliant.  But we’re lucky to have a brilliant goalkeeper.  Foster his out bravely, defiantly, to claim a Jacobson corner and again when the same player is able to send in a follow up. Kashket controls a knockdown with his hand, the officials miss it and Foster’s block is critical.   Akinfenwa forces a shooting opportunity, Foster saves well to his right.

Meanwhile our attacks are the sort of rapier thrusts that we’re used to seeing and it’s not impossible that we take the lead but there’s no heft to our performance.  Capoue could have provided that but he’s disappointingly low key.  Femenía rattles up and down the right flank and is a constant force for good, but it’s not enough.  As the half closes, Troost-Ekong’s sloppiness lets in Kashket who squares for Akinfenwa to shovel over.  Then Wanderers break through on the right and Troost-Ekong redeems himself by thundering in to deny Horgan.  No, not lucky.  Not hanging on.  But, yes, half-time would do very nicely we thought you’d never ask.

5- Second half starts in similar vein until we score.  And of course it’s Kiko and Sarr’s far post header is perfect and suddenly we look like the newly relegated side weathering the storm and then mercilessly killing off the game triers with a moment of quality.  And then Sema’s rolling through challenges, threatening to stick the knife in but doesn’t quite.  Sarr powers in a shot, Jacobson denies João Pedro a tap in.  We have all the possession now and look every inch the better side.  That should have been it.  We should have seen it out.

And that’s the other recurring trend.  Looking good.  Looking solid.  And not quite being good enough.  See also Reading, Sheff Wed, Bournemouth.  We’ve looked vulnerable at set pieces against sides less well equipped to exploit them than Wycombe and there was nothing spawny or half-hearted about Stewart’s equaliser.  Indeed, Wanderers can consider themselves unlucky to have a second disallowed as substitute Samuel tangled with Foster.  It wasn’t a travesty of a decision, but he could certainly have gotten away with a more generous interpretation.

Consolations?  Silver linings?  Glenn Murray putting in his best minutes for us, drifting into space for Kiko to slip him straight through, the shot from nowhere across the face of goal.  In all honesty he could have been on earlier.  Some tactical flexibility, Chalobah on to provide some more controlled passing from the back as Kabasele departed with a shirt spattered in blood from a facial injury.  It didn’t work, it might have done and might do in the future.

We can’t complain with a point, and no away point is a bad point.  An away point at Wycombe might look a lot better in a month or two’s time than it does now.  But we need to be able to score imperfect, scruffy goals if we’re going to be the cruelly effective side that we ought to be.  We need a striker fit.

Bring on the next one.  Yooorns.

*Foster 4*, Femenía 4,  Sema 3, Cathcart 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Kabasele 3, Capoue 2, Cleverley 3, Quina 2, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2
Subs:   Murray (for Quina, 74) 3, Chalobah (for Kabasele, 74) 2, Garner (for Cleverley, 90) NA, Wilmot, Sierralta, Ngakia, Bachmann

Watford 1 AFC Bournemouth 1 (24/10/2020) 24/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Sometimes you just crave something normal.

You’ll have your own favourites.   For me… football, obviously.  That goes without saying.  But more mundane stuff too.  Being able to see family, go to the pub without worrying about it.  Going to the co-op for some milk without having to queue up outside, or wear a mask.  Going to work, actually going to work and seeing people in three dimensions rather than two, and running into people spontaneously rather than everything being timetabled.  Everything.

To be somewhere busy.  With lots of people.  And noisy.  And chaotic.  To hold the door open for someone without wondering if that’s the right thing to do any more.  To shake someone’s hand.  Something normal.  Anything normal.

Except this bollocks, obviously.  That should have gone without saying.

2- I know I’m supposed to hate Luton and I suppose I do but largely out of the same sense of obligation provoked by signing leaving cards at work for people that I don’t really know.  Proper animosity will come, I’m sure, if we spend too long in the same division, the pressurised nature of derbies makes it a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy but competitive rivalries such as that with the Cherries, promoted with us and relegated with us having earned a single point more than us over the five years, are more heartfelt at the moment.

There will come a time when this is not so.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with Bournemouth, the Dorset coast is perfectly pleasant, there are years of shared history without there being a Thing and the fanbase no more objectionable than most others would be in the face of such fractious recent encounters.

But now?  Eddie Howe has gone but Jason Tindall was always the High Priest of Bournemouth’s snide, cynical brand of shithousery.  No surprise to see the Cherries bomb out of the top flight with the advent of VAR.  No surprise to see the club’s recent traditions upheld by the new coach.  There’s been plenty of criticism of today’s referee Tim Robinson, who will certainly have better afternoons.  But it wasn’t Robinson making the studs up challenges, not late tired lunges in a high speed contest but deliberate and unpleasant acts of gamesmanship.

3- The last home win in a game between the two sides came at Bournemouth in January 2015, abetted in part by an early (and later rescinded) red card for Gabriele Angella.  There should have been an early red card here…  with a crowd to bellow it’s objection, or had the challenge come ten minutes later then surely the Cherries would have been down to ten.  Tindall was at least candid enough to admit that “on another day it could have been a red card”, but his “not that kind of bloke” follow up in defence of Lloyd Kelly doesn’t hold any water.  You saw the thought process as Sarr threatened to escape… danger man, early doors, will get away with a yellow here, let’s do it.  It was brutal, arrogant and cowardly, and our good fortune was that Sarr wasn’t badly injured as he could have been.

Instead, after an opening ten minutes in which the Cherries had been aggressively, attritionally assertive the Hornets broke with devastating efficiency.  Cathcart swung a tremendous ball from left to right into the path of Sarr, the winger blistered down the right and slid a perfect cross into the path of Stipe Perica’s lunge.  The Croat had had an ungainly, awkward opening ten minutes or so but made no mistake here.

The rest of the half was low on goalmouth incident – our games are likely to be this way – but never less than engrossing. Sarr’s opening 45 was devastating, even if as the visitors briefly reeled in the wake of the goal he could have put Perica away rather than trying his luck from 30 yards.  The visitors began to pick up a head of steam in the final 15 minutes of the half; the largely low-key  Arnaut Danjuma showed a level of awareness of tradition with a “Coxy into the wall” tribute from a free kick.  Jack Stacey continued an emerging tradition of right backs causing us problems, frequently joining attacks and necessitating a fine and acrobatic interception from the tremendous Chalobah late on. Dominic Solanke, still looking a bit like an exchange student who doesn’t really speak the same language as his teammates, found some space but drove tamely at Foster.  Always – again, this will be the case one suspects – we looked a threat on the break whenever Sarr, who was diligent defensively, put the burners on.

An emerging theme, however, was the vulnerability of James Garner who was bullied by Billing and picked up an early yellow card for a silly trip.  As the half drew to a close the only question was whether to replace him at half time or to risk the humiliation of withdrawing him earlier, such was the degree to which he was overwhelmed and, particularly, rattled by his opponent once going through the back of him as the ball departed.  In the pantheon of missed fouls, would not be even handed to neglect to mention this one.

But Billing himself stole that particular limelight as the half drew to a close.   A flying elbow that connected painfully with Perica’s head was a coulda red rather than a shoulda, a benefit of doubt could be afforded.  Less so for me the sneaky lunge at Cleverley’s thigh by the same player in the subsequent passage of play, this looked more deliberate and considered being out of the referee’s line of vision.  Pretty extraordinary that the big Dane finished the game without a card.  We ended the half bruised, but in front.

4- The start of the second half could and perhaps should have seen us out of sight.  Étienne Capoue was on for Garner, his first touch of the ball was miserable but thereafter he was tremendous… he dinked a terrific ball to send Sarr through again, the Senegalese perhaps hit it later than he might have done but nonetheless drove a shot that would have gone inside Begovic’s near post had the keeper not pulled off a fine reflex save.

Shortly afterwards Sarr escaped again, and this time was pulled down by Kelly whose earlier yellow card should have proven critical.  It wasn’t a straight red for me, any more than the Kabasele incident on Wednesday night, but was a cynical attempt to curtail an escaping opponent and was a second yellow all day long.  Not given.

From then, it was an odd half.  The visitors dominated possession but their pressure was largely attritional…  comfortable in possession, good at moving the ball around and finding space, not very good at exploiting it.  Their efforts on goal – until the critical one – were from distance and whilst the shots on target stat in isolation doesn’t tell the story of a ball being moved around and across the penalty box, there was a lack of focal point for the visitors.  Josh King, making his first domestic start of the season, might become that figure but he was a largely theoretical threat here.

The Hornets threatened on the break, and Begovic had as much to do as Foster for all of Bournemouth’s rather impotent pressure.  Quina came on for Cleverley and put on a glittering half-hour or so, comfortably his best showing of the season…  the Cherries were the first side to afford him time and space to shoot from distance and a little more precision would have delivered more from two fierce, bending drives that Begovic, twice, nonetheless did well to stop.  On the second occasion João Pedro, on for the uncomfortably injured Perica, wasn’t quite sharp or fortunate enough to meet a rebound but was later involved in another lightning break that should have seen us capitalise on a numeric advantage as the visitors chased the game.

5- If you take the view – and I’m not sure I do in this case – that refereeing decisions are random incidents to be ridden and dealt with then it’s difficult to argue that the visitors weren’t worth a point, such was their unwavering pursuit of an equaliser.  They attacked with the ferocity of Blackburn, if without the potency, but also lacked the great big open gaps behind them as they pushed forwards.  Nonetheless, it’s always galling to concede an injury time equaliser, the more so given Kelly’s prominence in it.  Echoes of (former Cherry) Tyrone Mings’ arse at Villa Park in January when the England defender should have walked before the injury time winner took a critical deflection off his unwitting backside – one can only hope that this one proves less expensive.

I was bloody livid.  I can’t imagine I was the only one.  This report was postponed by the need to drive to Bedford and stomp grumpily around the park in the swirling wind and rain with a very strong coffee.

But having calmed down (a bit), it’s not hard to be philosophical.  Our side is built on a strong defence, and boy did they prove their mettle today – indeed, over the past week – despite the disappointing denouement.  All three of the centre-halves were absolutely tremendous, Cathcart putting in a masterclass of being in the right place at the right time as so often, garnished with his astonishing contribution to our goal.  Kabasele was focused and dynamic, and if Troost-Ekong still needs games and looks less physically dominant than I’d imagined there’s no disputing, once again, that we look a solid old unit.  If you rely heavily on your defence then occasionally, as today, as at Reading, something’s going to break against you.  That doesn’t mean that the whole plan is necessarily bunk, certainly not with the likes of Troy, Hughes, Gray, Masina still to return.

We’re still in a good place.  What matters, after generally kind results elsewhere, is how we respond. How we get back to, well, “normal”. Starting at Wycombe on Tuesday.


Foster 4, Ngakia 3,  Sema 4, *Cathcart 5*, Troost-Ekong 4, Kabasele 5, Chalobah 4, Cleverley 3, Garner 2, Sarr 4, Perica 3
Subs:   Capoue (for Garner, 45) 4, Quina (for Cleverley, 64) 4, João Pedro (for Perica, 82) NA, Wilmot, Sierralta, Murray, Bachmann

Watford 3 Blackburn Rovers 1 (21/10/2020) 22/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- I have recently discovered Marie Kondo.

At a time when, for various reasons, it’s difficult to do anything extravagant with time off and having plenty of it still to use I’m spending the week sorting out the garage.  That’s living, kids.  And so I’ve been directed towards Marie Kondo’s Netflix show by a friend who knows me rather too well.  The ferociously prescriptive and attractively bonkers how-to-tidy-and-organise-stuff methodology is right up my street and has had a fine impact on my garage, at the cost only of the collateral damage of an unforeseen extra day to be spent emptying my wardrobe and saying goodbye and thank you to, I suspect, a large number of clothes.

Marie Kondo herself is a small Japanese woman high on smiles, energy and personality.  One of the mantras is to only keep stuff that gives you joy, and the character she portrays is consistent with that.  She’s joyful.

Only a visit to her Wikipedia page lifts the veil.  Her Wikipedia pic is…  cold.  Focused.  Severe.  Businesslike.  The illusion is shattered, her on-screen persona is mere performance.  This doesn’t make the approach any less effective it’s just…  harder to trust her.

So it was reassuring to see Vladimir Ivic staying on brand during a largely vanilla fans’ forum on Monday.  “Would you prefer to win 4-3 or 1-0”.  “1-0”, with a twitch of the shoulder that implied that the answer should have been obvious (it was).  It’s not the fun answer, but you know it’s an honest one.  Nobody should be surprised.   What he made of this evening’s fare we can only speculate.

2- Much of the blame for the  thrilling, captivating nature of the evening lies at the feet of the visitors, who were bold, enterprising and very capable.  Comfortably the most potent attacking force we’ve faced so far, their activity at the end of the transfer window suggested a side who’d had a glance around the division, decided they fancied it and told the dealer to twist accordingly.  Of the four deadline day arrivals only the precocious Harvey Elliott started and it may be that we played Rovers at a good time, before the signings have settled, but this was nonetheless a stern test of our back line.

Which isn’t to say that the visitors were infallible.  The prognosis from previews by People Who Know was of a soft underbelly and even as Rovers pushed forward, dominated possession and denied us any control in the early stages a peculiar defensive set up that saw centre-backs Ayala and Lenihan staying back. goalkeeper Kaminski pushing up, but a chasm between themselves and the rest of their side with both full backs attacking aggressively seemed ripe for exploitation.

The early exchanges only served to whet the appetite for what was to come.  As we finally managed to string a couple of passes together six minutes in, Sarr was released and disappeared into the sunset leaving Amari’i Bell in pieces behind him.  Rather than rein in Rovers’ ambition this only seemed to spur them on…  a quick free kick forced Cathcart to concede a corner, the excellent Nyambe fed Armstrong who tested Foster for the first time, the keeper making light of a fierce shot.

It was an engrossing battle, which seemed to take a decisive turn in a five minute period a quarter of an hour in.  The first goal was a rapier thrust;  Sarr fed Garner who played in Kiko on a galloping overlap.  He squared for João Pedro to sidefoot calmly home.  It was a goal savage in its precision, but the follow-up four minutes later was simply savage, Rovers momentarily startled by the turn of events opened up by a ball from Garner and Sarr’s merciless strength and speed.  His shot at an angle was always a big ask, but Kaminski could only palm it away and it dropped kindly for Tom Cleverley, albeit his forehead was where anyone else’s could have been if they’d been paying attention.

3- Very briefly that felt like “it”, so clinical had been our finishing, so keen had Rovers been to push forward and so vulnerable had they seemed to be to the counter-attack.  Going away and being so positive is fine until you fall behind, let alone two goals behind, and it was difficult to see anything other than us scoring more on the break.

To their credit Rovers’ resolve didn’t waver at all and they kept at us.  We had a bit of a break five minutes later as Kabasele was given a yellow as he brought down the lively Armstrong.  The striker had run across Kaba’s path to draw the foul and with Cathcart covering a yellow was the right decision, but not so right that you haven’t seen a red given in those circumstances.  From the resultant free kick Lenihan tested Ben Foster with a header – he should have done better in truth, having been let go by his marker Sema in a slightly concerning echo of the game at Hillsborough.

Another five minutes of pressure on and Rovers had a goal back.  It was a tremendous chest and volley from more than twenty yards, albeit Brereton had more space than you’d have liked, but Ben Foster was deceived by a late bounce and beaten at his near post.

Digressing slightly, it’s an overlooked detail that we didn’t award a Player of the Season last year.  Completely understandable in the circumstances, Things being what they are/were and so on even if it presents something of an unreachable itch for statistical completists like me.  In any event, had such an award been made it seems likely that Foster would have achieved the rare feat of two such trophies in relegation seasons thirteen years apart, for his stoic performances and irrepressible good-blokeness on and off the pitch.  And this despite, it is easy to forget, a rather wobbly start to last season where being beaten at his near post was in danger of becoming a Thing.  He overcame that wobble and here, too, whilst at least jointly culpable for letting Rovers back into the game he recovered to pull off a quite startling performance.

4- Any concerns that the second half would calm down a bit were allayed within five minutes of the restart.  An underhit Chalobah pass towards Sema was cut out, and Wilmot was caught slightly flat footed as Brereton escaped only to be pulled back by a welcome offside flag.  That could have been a different second half.

As it was, and with so much of our threat in the first half having come via the burning pace of Sarr and Femenía on the right, Blackburn telegraphed what was to come by giving Ken Sema all sorts of space to put a cross in on the left.  He’s already demonstrated that he needs no space at all to cause damage from wide positions, so it was little surprise that a minute later his vicious cross was turned in by Lenihan.  Unfortunate for Rovers, but only up to a point – this wasn’t a freak turn of events, a gift… Sarr was attacking the space behind Lenihan forcing the Irish defender to (try to) deal and would have converted if he hadn’t.

Back to a two goal cushion, but still not game over.  Foster saved brilliantly from a Corey Evans volley, then again when another underhit pass towards Sema, this time from Sarr, saw Rovers escape. Armstrong beat the offside this time only to be denied by Foster’s extendable fingertips, a save he had no right to make.  Only, finally, when Holtby won himself a penalty with a well-timed tumble and Foster went the right way to deny Armstrong yet again were we able to relax.  For all Rovers, potency, this was clearly our night.

And for all Rovers’ potency, for all that they dominated possession and made so many chances, the scoreline doesn’t flatter us in the slightest.  Having a tremendous goalkeeper isn’t “lucky”, having defensive players doing what’s necessary to make those chances difficult for the most part isn’t fortunate.  Instead the main concern from the evening was that we didn’t win more comfortably given the unreasonable pace in our attack and the great big spaces that were afforded behind Rovers’ backline.  For all that the visitors were impressive and huge fun – “everyone likes a plucky loser”, as my Dad would say – there were echoes of the dying days of Javi’s reign here at the start of last season (about twenty years ago).  Rovers were attacking and enterprising, but carved open far too easily.

5- For the remaining twenty minutes or so the visitors were kept at arm’s length and it looked more likely that we’d extend our lead than that we’d concede again, João Pedro and Sarr both coming close in blistering breaks.  Key in this, the cherry on the icing on an already very respectable cake this evening was a swaggering half hour from the quite brilliant Étienne Capoue.

And here’s the thing.  If we were perhaps catching Rovers on a good day, a few players missing and new signings not bedded in, then every side that plays us at the moment is playing us on  a good day.  We are only going to get better. All of our midfielders played well in isolation today…  Chalobah does some silly things sometimes but only because he does so much destructively and creatively.  James Garner looked absolutely fabulous again, dynamic and energetic and ferocious and still absolute class with the ball at his feet.  Cleverley is leading the team, and for me far, far more effective in an attacking role.

And yet Capoue will take that midfield to a whole new level, a Rolls Royce of a midfielder in this or any division.  Will Hughes still to return.  Wow.  At the back, if we looked less comfortable, more tested and stretched today it’s in part due to the fact that we were facing a much more potent opponent – conceding one goal here as impressive as some of the clean sheets that preceded it.  And up front…  the two young forward players are both extraordinary and if they’re not quite in tandem yet then you kinda feel that with a tweak in formation, attacking from slightly deeper either side of a Perica or a Gray, (let alone a Deeney, at his freewheeling Russian Roulette best in the Hornet Hive studio) they’re going to cause no end of havoc.

Most of all, there’s the head coach’s ferociously prescriptive method.  Marie Kondo would approve, I suspect. A long way to go, but we look well set-up, well stocked and well prepared for this.

Another big test Saturday.  Bring it on.


*Foster 4*, Femenía 4,  Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 3, Chalobah 4, Cleverley 4, Garner 4, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3
Subs:   Capoue (for Cleverley, 61) 4, Ngakia (for Femenía, 71) 3, Quina (for Sarr, 89) NA, Troost-Ekong, Perica, Murray, Bachmann

Derby County 0 Watford 1 (16/10/2020) 17/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- The boredom’s bloody awful.

Most specifically, the lack of excitement.  The lack of adrenaline.  Working in isolation, bingeing on TV series, cooking curries, Zoom calls with friends, all fine.  Enjoyable, to varying degrees.  Not exciting though for the most part, not really.

Walking’s good.  That’s not exciting either, but living rurally it’s something I can do without reservation whatever the state of lockdown is, whatever the R number is.  In the fields out the back I can walk for miles with a good few hundred metres warning of anyone approaching and as Billy Connolly amongst others has noted there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong type of clothes.  Normally I’ll have a podcast in my ears, but last week I went for music instead on a ten mile loop up to there, across to there through a wood full of indignant muntjac and back home again.  I prescribed myself a diet of stuff that I haven’t listened to for ages…  Blondie, Cinerama, the Wonder Stuff.  All live albums…  listening to a live album isn’t the same as being there, as feeling your ribcage vibrating as PJ Harvey launches into “Dress”, but it’s not without value as a substitute.  The Pretenders were rejected as soon as it became clear that their live acts involved playing everything at half the usual speed, the opposite of what a live performance is supposed to be.  Soon I had a spring in my step, a little burst of adrenaline borne of losing myself in the music.  Half an hour later I was in tears as the wrong lyrics tripped me up.  A high risk strategy, evidently.

2- Speaking of excitement, the transfer window’s just slammed shut.  Long enough this one, I think, and I’m speaking as someone who finds the ludicrous toing and froing and speculation relatively enjoyable as you might have gathered (and see above, anything approaching excitement…).  In truth it’s long been a landmark that we’ve been desperate to see pass, not just because it means the portcullis dropping on the possibility of losing the likes of Sarr and Hughes, at least until January, but just in that it might finally show our hand (whatever that might be).  As it turned out it passed relatively uneventfully, the “no news” being good news in that we retain everyone we were desperate to keep (not you, Craig).  If their heads are in the right place the guys who’ve stayed when they might not have are huge assets.  Quite how big a caveat that is only time will tell, but the suspicion that not all of those who were slated as likely exits would leave proved well-founded.

Nonetheless, the announcement of the starting eleven was underwhelming.  No Troy, no Hughes, we knew that, but no Sarr either.  The club may have been aware that he wouldn’t realistically be back in time (despite Senegal’s Tuesday game with Mauritania having been scratched, so a little difficult to reconcile) but we didn’t.  And no Capoue, despite the suggestion that his return was a possibility.  The first eleven, certainly the attacking side of it, looked a bit botched together and the bench, flimsy. Vladimir Ivić had picked a side based on what he had available, but it was a side that looked even more focused on defensive solidity, asking an awful lot of two young attacking players in João Pedro and Domingos Quina.

Little surprise then that the first half was pretty turgid.  The midfield was ferociously congested, any possession hared down by whoever didn’t have the ball meaning that either side stringing more than a couple of passes together felt a little anomalous.  Defensively we looked solid, as ever, William Troost-Ekong having a relatively inconspicuous debut (save for a slightly alarming sliced attempt at a clearance that Foster had to be attentive to) but was also talking constantly and from the opening minutes.  Good.  Going forward though very little was sticking up front. There were occasional glimpses of life, João Pedro demonstrating surprising strength to hold off a defender here, Sema breaking from his constrained central position to get wide and get a ball over there, but these sparks didn’t ignite anything too often let down by a bad pass or a bad decision forced by the lack of time and space.

The biggest threat to either goal in the first half was Wayne Rooney, whose decline I had greatly exaggerated in my head having viewed only from a distanced and labelled Derby a bit of a basket case – also an exaggeration.  Whilst his mobility has reduced his physicality and awareness gave the home side’s attacks some cohesion and his set piece delivery their biggest threat.  Also the best demonstration of our defensive resilience since we stood up to it well.

3- The thing is, solid is a very decent start.  Easy to be smart with hindsight of course… this game could certainly have finished nil nil, we’d have a different view if more generally we’d had a few more unlucky but decisive breaks such as the deflection on Pușcaș’ shot two weeks ago in our generally tight games to this point.  But it didn’t and we haven’t…  and so it’s not unreasonable to credit a head coach who has looked at the bit that’s stable and works, and looked at the bit where the sands have been shifting most unpredictably and prioritised accordingly.

It was argued after the game that we’ve not played anyone decent yet, but that’s not strictly true by the standards of the division.  Three of the five teams we’ve played are top half as I write and another would be, just about, but for their points deduction despite us taking points off most of them. It is difficult for a side to look good against our suffocating defending.  You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of good chances we’ve allowed opponents across the five league games, and whilst we’ve made mistakes – Cleverley passing carelessly across the box, Wilmot making a rash challenge later in the game – they’re isolated incidents, we’re solid enough to ride them and the Championship isn’t merciless enough to punish them most of the time.  We have a strong first four from which to perm three (or two) at the back, and Sierralta getting good reviews for Chile in the week makes a fifth.  Sean Dyche’s Watford side did a good job of being solid with a bit of magic dust eight years ago, this – without the absentees – is the same formula with vastly better players.

There’s a lot to admire and enjoy and – digressing slightly – it seems worthwhile dwelling on the fact that this stuff is quite enjoyable and has value in it’s own right. It might suit the big six to pretend that it’s their bit that’s important, certainly suits them to build in anticompetitive barriers to protect themselves from upstarts like Leicester and Wolves in the same way that the Premier League’s creation guarded against the Wimbledons and the Champions’ League’s inception guarded against the Steaua Bucharests, but it doesn’t suit anyone else.  And yes, Things Being What They Are something needs to be done but further closing a shop, further tilting the unlevel playing field isn’t it.  Delighted that the thing was voted down, some kind of deal that recognises the symbiosis of the football pyramid and involves, you know, the big six giving something up rather than making concessions that don’t cost them an awful lot whilst clawing away at any risk to their dominance hopefully the end game.  It has been argued that this was merely an opening salvo, that the proposal was so ludicrous that it can only have been a negotiating position to row back from to the actual objective but I don’t buy the implied inevitability of it.  Match 39 was, eventually, beaten off after all.

4- Back on the pitch and as so often we got better in the second half.  And, yes, it would be nice if we were great for ninety minutes but evidence of a manager smart enough  to know what to change is encouraging.  It was still not quite there, the ball was still not sticking enough but fifteen minutes in we were undeniably on top for the first time.  Ken Sema rolled Evans, the weak link of the Derby backline.  João Pedro got yet another exquisite touch to tee up Chalobah who slammed the ball goalwards…  Evans blocked with his hands but a coulda rather than a shoulda penalty for me.  Cleverley put an outrageous ball across the pitch, well cleared.  Kabasele met a Quina corner well but a deflection killed the momentum of the header.  Derby were all hands on deck now, not least the excellent Matt Clarke, a frequent appearance on The List in recent years.

And then it happened.  And Ben Wilmot had a big role in it tp crown what was already perhaps his strongest performance in a yellow shirt;  the surge on the ball from the left that disrupted Derby’s shape was worthy of a Holebas or a Doucouré, not a 20-year-old centre back playing on his weaker side.  He continued his run pulling Shinnie away from João Pedro and…. well.  You’ve surely watched it a dozen times by now, you don’t need me to describe it.  There was a bit of Deulofeu at Wembley about it but rather than dislocating his ankle to achieve a ridiculous curl the Brazilian did his thing where he makes himself space not by touching the ball but by stepping away from it and then stroking an impossible shot arcing through the eye of the needle and into the top corner.  Completely outrageous.  João Pedro has arrived.

And THAT is what excitement feels like.  Our third winner of the season, fourth if you count Perica’s penalty against Oxford, but the first bellow.  The first roar, eyes closed limbs extended ungracefully from my starting position on my stomach in front of the TV on the living room floor, making a degree of noise that didn’t go down well with all members of the family.  Get.  In.

5- I started emptying out the garage today. the morning after the night before, the first stage of an overdue project that is having a week off devoted to it, at least in part.  No, not exciting, but I got my excitement in last night in that hugely cathartic moment.  I finally emptied the last of the boxes from our move from Watford, umm, eleven and a half years ago.  Yes, I should have just binned it, but I found this…


Which is a good thing.

As for the game…  yes, it could easily have been nil-nil although Philippe Cocu, whose Derby side were limited and imbalanced rather than awful – had a touch of the Viallis about him in his fanciful post-match assessment that his side had been dominant and deserved “at least” a point.  No mate.  Both sides were solid, made it difficult.  We had some angel dust, and scored a goal, you didn’t.

A goal with our first shot on target admittedly, but as above Vlada is playing his hand and playing it well.  There’s an array of attacking talent missing that will give us an awful lot more than just angel dust.  Indeed, a line-up of Bachmann, Navarro, Masina, Cathcart, Sierralta, Capoue, Hughes, Garner, Sarr, Deeney, Gray gives today’s starting eleven a hell of a game and doesn’t feature Perica, Murray, Success or the criminally injured Dele-Bashiru.  Indeed, to requote an earlier statistic… if the Premier League couldn’t cope with a forward line of Sarr, Deeney, Deulofeu (L2, D3, W5 inc Liverpool, United, Wolves when starting together) then the Championship might struggle with Sarr, Deeney, João Pedro.

This game wasn’t a thriller, but was the stuff that promotions are made of.  We look a bit good, boys and girls.

This could be quite exciting.


Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Femenía 3, Kabasele 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Wilmot 4, Chalobah 3, Cleverley 3, Sema 3, Quina 3, *João Pedro 4*
Subs:   Cathcart (for Troost-Ekong, 72) 3, Murray (for João Pedro, 86) NA, Garner (for Quina, 89) NA, Stevenson, Phillips, Hungbo, Bachmann

Reading 1 Watford 0 (03/10/2020) 04/10/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- In my day-job, I’m a statistician.

This involves making sense of data.  Drawing reliable conclusions, building models, quantifying variation.  Is there a relationship between this and that?  What are the consequences of changing this, this and this all at the same time?  What are the factors that influence this outcome?

There is a characteristic of this role, of roles like this, that may not be immediately obvious.  When the penny drops the cold reality smacks you in the face. It’s absolutely terrifying.  People expect you to know what you’re talking about.  Your judgments are treated as gospel. Careless words run away from you and develop a life of their own.

This risk breeds a certain carefulness.  Caveats, qualifications, fences to be sat on, “on the other hand” and so forth. An inherent caution.  Which goes out of the window completely outside work.  Don’t tell anyone.

I don’t know what it is.  If I was at work I’d be full of warnings not to draw conclusions from a small sample size, not to extrapolate from this to that. This morning?  Clearly we weren’t going to concede a goal or lose a game all season.  Difficult game?  Pah.

2- The team started as if they were just as convinced of their own invulnerability.  Vlad’s selection was ostensibly a little conservative, Cleverley and Sema’s niggles this week seeing them relegated to the bench in favour of Tom Dele-Bashiru and Kiko Femenía, but we were punchy and aggressive from the off.

Sarr squirmed out of a tackle , tripped from right to left across the face of the box and released Dele-Bashiru breaking down the left, his fierce ball across the face just missing a touch.  Kiko overlapped and forced a ball across, Ngakia was attacking the far post but shanked a shot wide.

Reading were positive also, but seemed to be pushing themselves further than they wanted to be pushed, to the ragged extremes of their capabilities. Balls quicker than they could be accurately directed.  We swung the ball from flank to flank, Nathaniel Chalobah the conductor in chief swooping first time passes to either side where the wing-backs were pushing on. We won a free kick on the edge of Reading’s area, James Garner made light of the traditionally treacherous “too close to get it up and down” dangerzone to crash his shot off the underside of the bar.

It was all going rather well.  Too well.  And then two things happened.  Firstly the hosts switched formation to drop an extra body into their increasingly ragged midfield.  Secondly, Tom Dele-Bashiru twisted his knee awkwardly in a fall.

It’s preposterous to suggest that the side was reliant on a midfielder thirty minutes into his full league debut, but such was his irrepressible dynamism and influence on proceedings that it’s difficult to conclude anything other than we suffered for his absence.  He lasted another five minutes, during which Nathaniel Chalobah wandered across the edge of the Reading box, was robbed by a fine tackle and as the home side tried to break out Garner hurtled in with a blocking tackle.  It was heroic, but signified a shift in the game.

3- We’d been warned, and not just today.  We’re still work in progress, the sands are still shifting, it’s not “finished” and there’s already plenty to like.  But right at the moment, right now, we’re not potent enough.  The return on all the impressive, often elegant use of the ball and composed possession is too little punch at the business end.  Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro are both fabulous, Sarr’s will be the dominant thread of the many threads to be resolved over the next couple of weeks, but playing them up front together is like having two puddings and no main course.  A nice idea, but overly indulgent and ultimately unsatisfying.  You might get away with it on special occasions but on a regular basis it’s just not going to work.

We were better than Reading over the piece in the sense that we had more of the ball, more chances, and defended better but not so much better that we could get away with not having many shots or scoring any goals.  And as I said, we were warned…  Cathcart got away with a lucky deflection that saw him accidentally bypass Meite’s challenge on the edge of the area.  The same player got onto the end of a cross swung from right to left, thumping a volley at Foster who did well to block and then to repel a rebound.  Eventually Pușcaș, who did an endearingly belligerent job of charging around up front for the home side, attempted an unconvinced and unconvincing shot which took a deflection off Cathcart to wrong-foot Foster.

We were a bit unlucky with that incident.  If you manage to engineer shots and goals from possession when you have it you can afford such misfortunes when they come along.

4- The second half was a little bit miserable.  We were still trying most of the better things that had been going on in the first half but suddenly it looked a little bit deliberate, a little bit hard work.  Reading were playing with more confidence and did a good job of just getting in the way and threatened from set pieces, where we looked a little bit vulnerable. Much of the good stuff involved James Garner, whose set piece delivery is tremendous and who seemed keen to move the ball quickly which, in the absence of the physicality to threaten a large, solid defence was kinda essential.  Sema moved from an awkward looking spell in the centre to the left after another personnel switch and briefly looked like a get-out-of-jail card with his delivery from wide, but it didn’t happen… we ended the game looking quite forlorn, and quite unlike scoring an equaliser.

5- As was reflected in the post-match Hive discussion, a Troy Deeney in particular would have been useful for the other two to play off, to batter spaces for others to exploit.  To enable goals that weren’t entirely dependent on precision.  Or a Perica.  Or a Gray.  Glenn Murray had a brief cameo, but it’s fair to say that we haven’t worked out what to do with him yet.

Beyond that… an annoying defeat, but nothing to get overly stressed about.  There is still an awful lot more good than bad about this side which is extremely young, extremely fun and still being moulded.  The second of the two transfer windows, the domestic one, closes a couple of hours before we kick off against Derby and by then we’ll know who caught their plane, who was turned back at the gate and who never wanted to leave anyway, honest.

And then, finally, we’ll know where we’re at.  Probably.


Foster 3, Ngakia 3, Femenía 3, Cathcart 3, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 3, Chalobah 3, Dele-Bashiru 4, *Garner 4*, Sarr 3, João Pedro 2
Subs:   Sema (for Dele-Bashiru, 37) 3, Cleverley (for Femenía, 69) 2, Murray (for Sarr, 82) NA, Troost-Ekong, Quina, Pussetto, Bachmann

Watford 1 Luton Town 0 (26/09/2020) 26/09/2020

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.

1-  So there’s a guy who lives in my village.  We won’t name him, let’s call him “George”.  I know him well enough to stop and chat – about football, typically, which may be no surprise.

I ran into him a couple of weeks ago and he wasn’t wasting time with niceties.  “I watched your lot on the telly”, he started, without a “hello”.  “What are they all doing kneeling before the kick-off?”.

It went downhill from there.  From “When I saw your guy holding his fist in the air I turned it off” via “That sort of thing’s why I don’t watch much football any more” to “Why they’re allowed to do that but they can’t put a poppy on a shirt I don’t know” before I was afforded a word.  I briefly suggested that I didn’t share his point of view and took his leave.

The point is, there are wankers.  They’re out there, hiding in plain sight. This probably won’t be news to many of you.  Some of them will support Luton.  Some will support Watford.  George supports neither, as it goes. With particular relevance to this week, the fact that it was deemed necessary to bring the match forward to lunchtime, to box up the GT statue, can only have been based on police advice – you don’t put yourself to that sort of trouble on a whim, because you’re at a loose end.  At the time of writing it seems that nothing “went off”.  That doesn’t make these decisions ill-advised.

There are wankers.  Empty vessels make the most noise.  Yes, it’s pathetic, but there are wankers.  That’s as interesting as it gets.

2- Meanwhile, the first local derby for however long.  I found it significant, in the build up, to reflect that there aren’t anti-Luton songs any more.  I don’t remember the last time “Wings of a Sparrow” or any of the less witty, more banal, “insert-name-of-your-local-rivals-here” chants got an airing.  As you’ll have gathered, I don’t really miss it.

Tied in with that is the fact that local derbies matter more when your teams are competitive rivals (which we haven’t been for a while) and particularly when both teams are rubbish (ditto, at least in our case). Add the fact that anyone under the age of 30 won’t remember the two sides being frequent opponents and the lack of it being quite such a thing any more is easier to understand.

Which isn’t to say that the game was anything other than hugely significant.  In the last week I’ve been reminded of that feeling you used to get, the excitement mixed with apprehension that it was them and we were probably going to lose because that’s what happened.  I hadn’t felt that for more than twenty years, but it was a staple twice-a-season thing once upon a time.

This lasted until the team news, which was a bit like the team news before the Palace quarter final eighteen months ago when Zaha’s absence was confirmed.  The anxiety washed away in blinking, grinning joy.  Suddenly there was no peril, just excitement.  Suddenly you knew we were going to win, like on that day in October 1997.  Ismaïla Sarr may still leave over the next few weeks, but that’s no reason not to enjoy whatever minutes we get.  At this level, he’s a cheat code.

3- Characteristic of too many of our League performances since the lockdown has been a poor start, to the extent that it’s been something worth noting in every game in its own right.  There’s no point taking the gamble of starting Sarr and not beginning on the front foot though, and whilst the opening fifteen minutes of a derby, any derby, is traditionally frantic chest-beating and “Hold on, did anyone bring a ball?” harum scarum, the lack of a crowd and therefore absence of noisy angst from the stands allowed a very entertaining game of football to break out.

In terms of vibe our performance was similar to that in the second half at Hillsborough…  verve, energy and movement lacking only an end product.  With Sarr in the mix however there’s all manner of extra potency;  his pace and threat alongside João Pedro’s awareness and deceptive strength seems almost unfair in the Championship.

For ten or fifteen minutes it was still a little incomplete.  We looked nice and tidy until the final third, but couldn’t get any controlled possession at the business end of the pitch, Sema coming closest by playing through Cleverley with a smart first touch.

But we were soon producing our most fluid football of the season, and whilst the squad remains up in the air there are all sorts of things to be excited about.  Sarr skating at opponents, combining deft touches with brutal physicality and ferocious speed.  No signs of rust whatsoever.  Ngakia uncontainable once again, always available on the overlap and putting in quality with either foot, a horrible player to have to mark.  Tom Cleverley, released from his sitting role by James Garner’s inclusion, in the more advanced ferreting position which has always seen his best stuff.  João Pedro, as above surprisingly resilient, tougher than his spindly frame suggests ought to be possible.  He received plenty of attention from his markers but stood up to all of it – there was a tendency to go looking for a foul but referee John Brooks did a decent job of letting the game run and not blowing up when he didn’t have to.

So with Ngakia and Sarr rampant, it was a bit of a surprise that the goal came from an attack down the left, Ken Sema once again demonstrating that he doesn’t need any space at all to get a cross in and João Pedro adjusting quickly to a deflection to prod home. His first goal in England on his nineteenth birthday.  Not the last.

4- Whilst we were on top it would be wrong to paint this as a completely one-sided contest. The visitors were the strongest side we’ve faced thus far, defended well for the most part, desperately on occasions but doggedly enough to stay in it and always looked dangerous on the break where their attacks were neat and tidy.  Harry Cornick was the biggest threat in the first half, too often finding space down the right.  His ball across was smacked off the underside of the bar by Collins with Foster doing well to come out and force the Luton striker to lift the ball.  That goes in it’s a different game;  as it was we broke and scored, and never really looked back.

At half time of that game at Kenilworth Road in October 1997 I met my now co-editor (as well as the estimable Nick Grundy) for the first time.  This time, things being what they are, I had to settle for grabbing a sandwich.

5- The visitors attempted to seize the initiative at the start of the second half, but this barely lasted beyond an opening corner.  Thereafter it was the Hornets with the greater threat, even if the concern remains that one-nil doesn’t reflect our superiority, that for all the flicks and tricks and movement we’re making scoring goals harder than it should be.  There are no stock goals.

That will come though.  Indeed at the rate at which the kids – and the team as a whole – are improving, that will come very soon.  This one should have been more… from one of a number of excellent James Garner corners Chalobah glanced a header that needed slightly more contact and went wide.  Cleverley fed João Pedro whose flick released Garner, his drive was saved and the Brazilian’s snapshot on the rebound went wide.  Tunnicliffe was sloppy in possession, Sarr put the burners on and Pearson was forced to concede the first booking of the game (in the 75th minute of all things).

By that point Chalobah – excellent and forceful for an hour – had gone off to be replaced by Tom Dele-Bashiru, a less conspicuous addition to the “available” roster.  Briefly it looked as if Chalobah’s physicality might be missed again as we entrusted the back of the midfield to the 21 year-old Nigerian and his 19 year-old Scouse partner in crime, but any concerns were misplaced.  Dele-Bashiru has impressed in fits and bursts with the few chances he’s had since his arrival a year ago, but this was for me his most convincing half-hour in a Watford shirt…  composed under pressure, stingy with possession, direct and purposeful when Luton really wanted to be allowed to have the ball a bit more than they were.  If Dele-Bashiru was bypassed, Garner too proved to be made of much tougher stuff than you’d credit, hurling himself at loose balls, holding off much bigger opponents, and again being mean and rapid with possession.

There wasn’t much of a kitchen sink, much as an equaliser and a distinct change of mood wasn’t entirely off the cards.  Instead the Hornets should again have extended their lead, João Pedro and Sarr combining on the left to allow Dele-Bashiru a shot which Sluga did well to save.  To round off the show, Troy came on like a pantomime dame, barely featured in the play but provided a comedy battering of Luton’s frustrated left back who had made the mistake of taking out his anger on Ngakia.  A “Gifton at the corner flag” moment.  We finished the game well on top, and if Luton look unlikely to be facing a relegation battle this season they were outplayed and outclassed here.  Yes, it’s nice to write that.

6- As suggested during the week, a result in this one makes all the difference to your perspective but the performance on top of that gives real grounds for optimism.  “Building from the back” is hardly a radical strategy, but it’s significant that we’ve conceded (generously) four decent chances across our first three League games.  We won’t go far wrong if that continues;  Cathcart, Kabasele and Wilmot looked very solid indeed and if Troost-Ekong’s signing is as imminent as Twitter seems to believe we seem well catered for here.  Our attacking play sparkled at times today, and whilst the pieces are still sliding in and out of view we have plenty of options – and of course if we do hold on to Sarr, even until January, an outrageous talent by the standards of the Premier League let alone the Championship.

And, a footnote, we beat our local rivals, in the League, here, for the first time since 1987.  It should remain a footnote.  Should beating Luton become one of the more significant details of this season then this team will not have fulfilled its dizzying potential.


Foster 4, Cathcart 5, Kabasele 4, Wilmot 4, *Ngakia 5*, Garner 5, Chalobah 4, Sema 5, Cleverley 5, Sarr 4, João Pedro 5
Subs: Dele-Bashiru (for Chalobah, 63) 4, Deeney (for João Pedro, 88) NA, Quina (for Sarr, 90) NA, Dawson, Femenía, Murray, Bachmann