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The List 2021. 09/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
3 comments

The List.  The Premier League list, by the way. Every player to have been linked with moves in or out since the closure of the January window. To be kept up to date until the closure of the window so bookmark if you Like This Sort Of Thing.  A very low bar of credibility is employed, but a mere “I think Watford should sign…” falls below it.  Previous windows’ lists linked at foot of article.

* Indicates player linked in previous windows

Running Total: 76

IN

Adam Reach (Sheff Wed
Kadeem Harris (Sheff Wed
Kolo Muani (Nantes
Kean Bryan (Sheffield United
Fernando Llorente (Udinese
Jacob Murphy (Newcastle
Ashley Young (Inter)*                                                joined Aston Villa
Matěj Vydra (Burnley)* 
Alberth Ellis (Boavista
Karl Darlow (Newcastle
Joe Pigott (AFC Wimbledon)                              joined Ipswich
Saikou Janneh (Bristol City
Charlie Bell (Portsmouth
Ike Ugbo (Chelsea
Kwadwo Baah (Rochdale)                                                      SIGNED
Siriki Dembélé (Peterborough)*
Rodrigo de Paul (Udinese)*                            joined Atlético Madrid
Jens Stryger Larsen (Udinese)
Rafael Borré (River Plate)                              joined Eintracht Frankfurt
Ilias Chair (Queens Park Rangers)*
Mbaye Diagne (Galatasaray)*
Gaël Kakuta (RC Lens)
Yakou Méïté (Reading)
Lewis Ferguson (Aberdeen)
Daichi Kamada (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Jens Petter Hauge (Milan)
Josh Doig (Hibernian)
Ashley Fletcher (Middlesbrough)                                        SIGNED
Hugo Souza (Flamengo)
Sory Kaba (Midtjylland)
Mattie Pollock (Grimsby Town)                                              SIGNED
Darrin Enahoro (Stoke City)                                                 SIGNED
Arnaut Danjuma (AFC Bournemouth)
Osaze Urhoghide (Sheffield Wednesday)                 joined Celtic
Robbie Brady (Burnley)*
Jon Moncayola (Osasuna)
Danilo (Palmeiras)
Eddie Nketiah (Arsenal)
Adrián Embarba (Espanyol)
Imrân Louza (Nantes)                                            SIGNED
Sam Johnstone (West Brom)*
Harvey Elliott (Liverpool)
Kevin Bonifazi (SPAL)                                 joined Bologna
Daryl Dike (Orlando City)
Tammy Abraham (Chelsea)
Filip Đuričić (Sassuolo)
Danny Rose (Tottenham)*                                           SIGNED
Maxwel Cornet (Lyon)*
Glen Kamara (Rangers)
Seko Fofana (RC Lens)*
Jovane Cabral (Sporting)
Ainsley Maitland-Niles (Arsenal)
Dapo Mebude (Rangers)                                        SIGNED
Paul Onuachu (Genk)
Giovanni Simeone (Cagliari)*
Kelechi Nwakali (Huesca)
Amadou Onana (Hamburg)
Mario Lemina (Southampton)*                        joined Nice
Vincent Angelini (Celtic)                                   SIGNED
Peter Etebo (Stoke City)                                SIGNED ON LOAN
Pape Matar Sarr (Metz)
Isaac Hayden (Newcastle)*
Josh King (Everton)                                          SIGNED
Aaron Boupendza (Hatyaspor)
Harris O’Connor (Rangers)
Abdul Abdulmalik (Millwall)
Morten Thorsby (Sampdoria)
Aaron Ramsey (Juventus)
Matt Longstaff (Newcastle)*
Brandon Soppy (Rennes)
Adam Armstrong (Blackburn)
Trevoh Chalobah (Chelsea)
James Léa Siliki (Rennes)*
Matt Grimes (Swansea)*
Matthew Garbett (Falkenbergs)
James McGrath (St Mirren)

OUT

Francisco Sierralta (Palace, West Ham
Kiko Femenía (Trabzonspor
Ben Foster (Manchester City, Celtic
Ismaila Sarr (Liverpool*)
Ben Wilmot (Swansea City*, Stoke City)                       joined Stoke City
Ignacio Pussetto (Udinese*)                                   rejoined Udinese on loan
Cucho Hernández (Getafe*, Granada*)
Troy Deeney (Sivasspor)
Stipe Perica (Barnsley)
Will Hughes (Aston Villa, Fulham, Newcastle, Crystal Palace)
Filip Stuparević (Partizan Belgrade)
Philip Zinckernagel (Nottingham Forest)
Adalberto Peñaranda (Las Palmas)                     joined Las Palmas on loan
Andre Gray (Middlesbrough, Blackburn)
Kwadwo Baah (Sheffield Wednesday)
Bosun Lawal (Celtic)                               joined Celtic
Dan Phillips (Gillingham)                    joined Gillingham on loan
Daniel Bachmann (Arsenal, West Ham, Ajax)

2021   January
2020 Summer January
2019 Summer January
2018 Summer January
2017 Summer January
2016 Summer January
2015 Summer  

Watford 2 Swansea City 0 (08/05/2021) 08/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
31 comments

1-

2.3  Parsimony
Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.
2.4  Worrying Selectively

Since all models are wrong the scientist must be alert to what is importantly wrong. It is inappropriate to be concerned about mice when there are tigers abroad.

Box, G. E. P. (1976), “Science and statistics”, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 71 (356): 791–799

From which is derived the aphorism “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.  In other words, a statistical model which approximates to the real world is never going to be a perfect representation of the thing it describes.  I can help scientists generate data that allows me to create a model that will predict an output from certain inputs.  If I know the recipe of a product, perhaps I can predict how quickly it will melt at a given temperature, or how much consumers will like it.

My predictions will be wrong.  Most of them.  In as much as it’s possible to tell.  The point is, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is if my prediction, or more generally my model, is close enough to be useful.

2- It doesn’t feel much like the last day of the season.  It doesn’t feel much like anything really, enjoyed as it is from this season’s detached vantage point in the study, window slightly ajar, snacks and drinks in place, match on the big screen, other stuff on the smaller screen. WhatsApp is accessible but carefully hidden and muted to guard against unwanted telegraphs of what’s about to happen from folk with faster streams than mine, we’ve all gotten better at this with experience.

But of all the things that it doesn’t feel like, the last day of the season is one of the things that it feels like least.  At this stage you’re normally looking forward to summer holidays for starters;  these are a moving target at the very best in these unprecedented times.  There might well be alcohol involved on the final day but I’m not cracking open a beer on my own at 12.30pm. There’d certainly normally be some effort to cross paths with the mates that you won’t see again until the next one, the high five-cum-handshake and “see you in August, mate” with people who you’ve known for years but never seen outside of Vicarage Road.  Not this year. And of course it’s normally sweltering on such occasions, rather than pissing it down with rain.  Sunshine was surely a reasonable expectation, a minimum requirement, unaffected as it is by Stuff and Things, one assumes.  Apparently not.

At least the club are putting on an obstinately excited performance.  There was a risk that after the lord mayor’s show the season might end inappropriately blandly, the irrelevant disappointment of defeat at Brentford last week case in point.  Not that anyone’s complaining, these last two fixtures being of no consequence is a tremendous result all round, but a repeat showing wouldn’t have sent us into the close season with quite the spring in our step that we should have for all that last Saturday was far from a catastrophe.

So the fabulously over the top explosions, flares, torches as the teams emerge, let alone the overdue return of whatever it is that shoots ridiculous volumes of yellow streamers into the heavens, are a defiant clarion call.  The streamers respect tradition by fastening themselves to the roof of the Sir Elton John stand forming a theatrical curtain above the stage for all wide angle shots (and for the man himself, to whom the camera returns frequently).

This buoyancy is evident in the players as they emerge;  grins everywhere and fists bumped with Nate Chalobah, Joseph Hungbo and the others restricted to the sidelines.  Swansea boss Steve Cooper, who limited screen time has occasionally presented as peevish and joyless, seems to be readily bumping fists too, in contrast to his captain Matt Grimes who noticeably refrains from any handshakes or fist bumps as the teams greet each other.  Perhaps he’s mindful of Stuff and Things.  Perhaps he’s just a miserable bastard.  Like Ivan Toney, if for different reasons, that ship has probably sailed so it’s all the same to us one way or the other.

3- Xisco has named virtually a second pick eleven.  It would, you suspect, be an entirely second pick eleven if Joe Hungbo hadn’t done his hammy at Brentford; the steadfast Ken Sema (steadfastness a rare quality in a winger but then Ken, a winger with the build of a heavyweight boxer, is a rare specimen) the only incontrovertible first choice from a fully fit squad amongst the starters.  There are nonetheless eight full internationals in the eleven, which tells some of the story of our success this season.

Swansea, meanwhile, have gone strong with what looks like a first-choice line-up.  With last week still front of mind things look a little ominous as the visitors get in down the left in the first minute;  Navarro gets away with a slide tackle from the wrong side in the box but that’s the last cheap opening they’re going to get;  for all that we’ve bemoaned the erstwhile absence of a physical specimen like Sierralta as one of the many things that might have prevented relegation a year ago we don’t half have some smart defenders as Cathcart and Kaba remind us throughout.  Within a minute Hourihane does his side no favours with a ludicrous dive some distance from the bemused Isaac Success within the penalty area;  it screams desperation this early in proceedings, marks his side’s card and probably plays a part in the official’s interpretation of subsequent optimistic but slightly less daft City claims.

Swansea are a bit odd.  At the Liberty Stadium in Xisco’s first away game they looked a tidy side;  solid defensively with enough going forward to be productive.  Plausible shouts for automatic on that evidence.  Subsequently they’ve undergone the sort of character transformation usually reserved for soap operas that choose not to write out a popular anti-hero at the end of their story arc.  On this evidence they look both blunt and get-attable, and have still contrived to finish fourth.  Not difficult to understand why FiveThirtyEight have them fourth favourites, a one-in-eight shot for the play-offs (anyone but Bournemouth, etc).

Swansea’s positive start doesn’t last long.  The first half hour is enjoyably open for all that it doesn’t produce any goals, and Ken is a key protagonist.  Three minutes in (we’ll pick up speed I promise, my dinner’s ready…) he tricks his way down the flank and pulls a ball back slightly too deep for Zinckernagel who does well to get as much power and direction as he does on the shot, but not enough. Back at the other end Ayew wriggles outside of Cathcart and shoots optimistically from a tight angle, Ben Foster is equal to it.  Sema thunders up the left flank again.  Gosling crashes in on Ayew, not for the last time, in a manner that suggests untold previous.

It calms down a bit, but only a bit.  Swansea get bursts of conviction that fizzle out on the flood barrier that erects itself around the edge of our box.  Lazaar becomes more prominent in what will comfortably be his most convincing outing in yellow, ending the half with an outrageous one-touch lay-off to a surprised Gosling to kill the pace on a crossfield ball.  Hourihane finds the space to shoot but from outside the box, Foster pushes wide.  Sema holds off two challenges to progress down the left and then slugs his cross out for a throw.  The half ends.

4- Lucky half time chocolate is a bowl of chicken and leek soup, which curtails note taking at the start of a second half that continues in much the same vein as the first. Swansea slowly, deliberately, work themselves a half-chance which sees Cullen curl over from Lowe’s lay-off, perhaps their best move of the game;  Watford break with far more vigour but can’t find the final ball for all that Andre Gray has been charging around looking for it since kick-off.

Until we do.  We get lucky with a kind deflection off Marc Guéhi which sees the ball drop onto the unwitting head of  Gray in a manner reminiscent of the opener here against Bristol City when All This Started, but to mark it down as a fluke would be to do a disservice to Ken Sema’s first assist of the calendar year, another bomb of a cross from the left flank.

From this point on the destination of the points is never in doubt.  In part this reflects the changing of the guard on both sides;  the Swans give it ten minutes, but then make four changes with the forthcoming play-offs in mind.  Meanwhile on come a combative Will Hughes, a deft João Pedro and ultimately Troy Deeney…  looking heavy and making limited impact but a very welcome arrival whose “Troy….Deeney?” introduction by Tim Coombs  on the tannoy is well-judged.

Lazaar becomes more prominent, blossoming as the season comes to a close.  A formidable double block in the box sees him emerge with the ball and surge upfield.  Later, as the game closes, a João Pedro lay-off bounces helpfully and the winger, by now forming a Moroccan left flank with Adam Masina, clouts a shot that Woodman does well to repel.  Too little too late, probably, but he doesn’t do his chances of a contract somewhere any harm.

The same of course is true of Isaac.  With the game trundling to a close he’s released by Marc Navarro and belts home…. muscles bulging, top corner, the net protruding with its ferocity.  A Roy-of-the-Rovers goal.  “Freddie Woodman didn’t even sniff it” would have come the speech bubble from the Rookery, if it hadn’t been empty.  Isaac’s few champions have been desperate for something to go in off his not inconsiderable backside, in the absence of that This Will Do.  The inevitable damburst that would follow this development cruelly curtailed by the end of the season.  If only.

The game, and the season, ends.

5- Someone asked me this week if I’d enjoyed this season, all things considered.  And the answer is…  well, not as much as any season which involves, you know, being at games and that.  On that basis, the logic follows, this is the worst season ever.

And yet.  The imperfections have almost exclusively been down to Stuff and Things outside of our control.  No, it hasn’t been a “real” season in that sense.  It’s been an approximation, a pastiche but… “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.

And hasn’t this been useful.  However hard it’s been, the last year, imagine doing it without Watford.  On the pitch, all but flawless.  Automatic promotion with games to spare, ninety-one points, nineteen home wins in 23, equalling Reading’s record of 30 goals  conceded in a season at this level, clean sheets in half of our league games.  A team that, since the mid-season changes, has screamed unity…  it’s much easier to be unified when you’re winning every week of course but each fuels the other.

Off the pitch.  Hornet Hive has been a thing of joy;  Emma, Jon, Tommy Mooney, Robbo and the rest have been utterly magnificent.  Gifton Noel-Williams’ unexpected pre-match candour, professing that it’s enabled him to feel “part of the club again”…  remembering the sight of the awkward figure being celebrated in the back of the stand at St Andrews in 1999, the trajectory of his career already  knocked cruelly off path at the age of 20 I’m almost in tears.

The decision to dispose of Ivić.  Even if you agreed at the time, would you have been bold enough to do it in the circumstances?  If you had the responsibility of making that decision, if you knew what the consequences would be irrespective of the fact that your track record involves leading a club whose centre of gravity had previously been roughly fourteenth in he Championship (and lower still, pre GT) to promotion, a cup final and five seasons in the Premier League?  Big, bold call.  Crucial call.

Hornets at Home.  The Community Trust.  The support offered to the hospital for goodness sake, selflessness when it was absolutely needed.  The fact that there’s almost certainly significant stuff that I’ve forgotten…

Everyone thinks their club is unique, is special.  That’s how it should be.

Everyone else is wrong.

See you next season.  In the Premier League.

Yooorns.

Foster 4, Navarro 3, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 4, Lazaar 4, Sánchez 3, Gosling 4, Zinckernagel 2, Success 3, *Sema 4*, Gray 3
Subs:  Hughes (for Zinckernagel, 65) 3, João Pedro (for Sánchez, 65) 3, Deeney (for Gray, 72) 2, Wilmot (for Gosling, 82) NA, Masina (for Sema, 82) NA, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Perica, Bachmann

Brentford 2 Watford 0 (01/05/2021) 01/05/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
Tags: , , ,
7 comments

1-   Twitter’s great.

I didn’t know any Watford supporters outside my family until I was eleven.  Then there was Ian at school, and later Rick (though he confirmed suspicions by switching to Spurs when GT left).  A latin teacher and a music teacher.  But… you know.  Limited chewing stuff over options.  The Hornet Hotline used to be a thing after all, a premium rate phone line I’d run up Mum and Dad’s phone bill on to discover whether we really had signed Leroy Rosenior or Terry Gibson (sometimes with Dad’s permission…).  Ceefax, page 302 (or more specifically 312), a tantalising drip feed of information.

Now I can find someone to talk to about whatever I want whenever I want, pretty much.  I can find out about stuff that’s just happened, even if it’s on the other side of the world.  I can find information, seek advice, compare and contrast opinions.  Twitter’s brilliant.

Twitter is also ghastly.

We’ve talked about the echo chamber before.  The natural tendency to pay attention to perspectives that resonate with your own, to block out those that don’t.  The logical consequence of that is that your perspective is re-enforced by the illusion of consensus.  “Look, everyone thinks this”.  Polarisation.

Add that to any number of national and international developments that have legitimised points of view that ought never have been given the oxygen of publicity and you’ve got a toxic environment where a knee-jerk response is all too easy, an unpleasant knee-jerk response no less so.  

An over-riding concern is the Wild Westness of it.  Except there isn’t much of a sheriff, so actually that’s probably a bit harsh on the Wild West.  The lack of consequence, the facility to cross the line with no comeback is abhorrent and re-enforces the suggestion that certain things that aren’t ok are actually ok, or at least get-awayable with.  

Then you’ve got the consciously malevolent.  The folk who go out to provoke, to incite, to offend, whether to fuel unspeakable insecurity or because their whole world is an echo chamber that permits such lack of judgement and conscience.  As Troy has pointed out this weekend, it’s inconceivable that social media platforms with the facility to sniff a copyright infringement at 100 paces are powerless to police this stuff.  The social media blackout might not change anything in that regard.  But it’s an awful lot better than passive disapproval, and it sends a message that might penetrate the echo chamber.  It’s not OK to be a bloody idiot.

2- Meanwhile, anyone but Bournemouth.  Obviously.

But beyond that, and looking strictly at our own on-pitch interests and not at the attractiveness of a local away trip to a new stadium as and when and so forth, and without taking anything remotely for granted you’d have to say that Swansea and Barnsley both have greater capacity to be relegation fodder in the Premier League than Brentford on the basis of this. 

For all that they’re playing a hung-over fifth-sequel pastiche of the side that has stormed the second half of the season (we’ll get to that), for all that they’ve managed to turn a nine point cushion to a(nother) play off scrap in the space of three months, for all that their ability to turn dominance of the ball into impotent defeat is laid on show in the first half like bric-a-brac at a car boot sale, Brentford look better equipped on this evidence.  This evidence being a squad that’s been a few years in the building.  A club that has the facility and the capacity to repeatedly sell on crown jewels – Konsa, Maupay, Benrahma, Watkins – and replace them with others you’d scarcely heard of and still come out punching.  To record victories in consecutive games against two of the division’s strongest sides (albeit and so on and so forth) without key personnel.  A club that has a goalscoring centre-forward of all things.  That would give them a puncher’s chance.

So anyone but Bournemouth, for reasons of civility and good taste.  And preferably not Brentford if it’s possible to be greedy, for slightly different reasons.

3- As for the Hornets, our own line-up is decimated by a series of injuries variously described as minor and niggling on the official site but which presumably wouldn’t have been niggling enough to render players unavailable if promotion were still in question.  The exception is groin-injury victim Kiko of course, but Sarr, João Pedro, Sánchez and Chalobah are also all missing from the squad that sealed the deal against Millwall.  

The result is as makeshift-looking a side as we’ve put out since the turn of the year, but circumstances being what they are (and hurrah for that, obviously, in case that wasn’t taken as read.  My hangover released me some time on Tuesday…) the take is a positive one, with the hugely likeable Joseph Hungbo given his first start. The slight concern, if there is one, is the ongoing and unmentioned absence of Jeremy Ngakia, last seen on the bench against Reading three weeks ago.  Craig Cathcart again steps in as third choice not-really-a-right-back.

The first twenty minutes or so are reasonably enjoyable.  The home side enjoy a lot of possession but don’t do an awful lot with it, almost positioning their glass jaw for a knockout punch.  We’re achieving more with far less, and Hungbo is prominent… he wins a free kick in the first minutes after a bullish run down the right;  ten minutes later he’s direct again, drawing a foul on the edge of the area that is presumably ignored by Lee Mason on the basis that the similarly energetic and waspish Dan Gosling gets a shot away;  David Raya saves low down to his left.

Tom Cleverley has already sent a wicked, inviting ball across the face of Brentford’s goal, startling in how effortlessly dangerous it was (aren’t this lot supposed to be good?).  Masina sent a dipping ball towards Gray that doesn’t quite clear Nørgaard but wasn’t far away from doing so;  Gray turned his marker with expert use of his backside but couldn’t accelerate quite quickly enough to gallop into space unattended.  It was all kind of promising in a scene-setting way, but it was as good as we were going to get.

Twenty minutes in Hungbo’s hamstring went as he thundered after possession again on the right flank.  It echoed Tom Dele-Bashiru’s injury at Reading at the start of the season…  less consequential, Hungbo’s enforced absence will be largely down to the summer break rather than an ACL, but similarly “just when we realised how good you are” frustrating.  Football matches come fewer and further between in the promised land, let alone opportunities to “go and show us what you can do, son”.  Ten minutes later Tom Cleverley followed Hungbo off; Zinc and Isaac Success entering the fray.

We were immediately weaker.  Whether Zinc was distracted by the presence of so many of his compatriots in the opposing ranks or not, his impact was minimal – he barely managed more than a simple lay-back for his first hour or so on the pitch.  As for Isaac…  I had cause to remember my tutor’s description of my work at university.  “You have moments of brilliance, mixed in with moments of…  not quite such brilliance”.  He was a nice man, he was being kind.  You suspect he’d say something similar about Isaac, whose lumbering around and woefully overhit passes occasionally blossom into something startling… like in the second half , when he receives another fine deep Masina ball, holds off his marker with impossible strength and clubs a shot goalwards in one sweeping movement.  Tommy Mooney spots a David Raya intervention on the ball’s way onto the crossbar and away – either way this stuff would be a whole lot more endearing if Isaac was still 20 and in his first year at Watford rather than 25 and in his fifth.  Time’s up, you suspect.

Brentford’s threat becomes slightly less theoretical as Toney, who is the lightning rod that Troy was for us at his best, and the busy Forss get to work.  Forss has the ball in the net with a backheel, denied for a well-spotted offside.  We’re still in the game at the break, kind of ok on balance.  But only kind of.

4- A minute into the second half it’s not kind of ok any more as Brentford unpeel us with the kind of soft goal that we haven’t conceded in forever, Forss turning in Canos’ ball across.  It was already evident that for all that WTE’s distribution is… occasionally alarming, we’re missing his “this is what we do and this is where we stand” influence on the back four.  Neither Kaba nor Sierralta have bad games – indeed the Chilean’s fine repertoire of different ways of getting in the way is given a decent airing – but it’s far less organised, far less “sorted”.  Which I guess is only fair, given that the pair had never started together in anger.  

Twelve minutes later Toney wrong-foots Sierralta in the box and goes down.  It looks soft, but Sierralta knows he’s been done and doesn’t protest;  Toney puts the pen beyond Bachmann and it’s all over.  It was already over really, the title chance…  Reading had teased us in the first half by taking the lead and holding onto it for fifteen minutes but Barnsley, whose belligerence we would have been relying on on the final day, were contriving to lose at Preston which wasn’t remotely encouraging.  In the end, Norwich cantered away with it.

We did at least manage to see out the game without further damage, both sides postulating the possibility of further goals without actually looking much like scoring one, Success’ brainstorm aside.  A clean sheet against Swansea next week will now only equal, rather than outstrip, the best Championship defensive record.  30 goals in 45 games is pretty sharp.  28 would have been sharper, obvs, but 30 is sharp.

We send on three subs, which is a bit like that bit at the end of a serialised gameshow where contestants chucked out in the early episodes that haven’t pissed everybody off in the meantime get invited back.  Ben Wilmot does an endearingly positive job of stepping in for Will Hughes and reminding us that we really do need to find a place for him.  Stipe Perica sums up his Watford career to date by running around for ten minutes, doing something encouragingly interesting and then getting booked for a silly, premeditated foul. Maurizio Pochettino (not that one) looks like a rabbit in headlights.  Then it stops.

5- Kind of annoying and kind of disappointing and kind of frustrating but only a bit. The whole “now for the title” thing was never wholly convincing, much as it’s easier to be smart in hindsight.  We’re a good enough side to have beaten Brentford despite the circumstances if the ball had rolled for us but it didn’t, and as such it’s no surprise or disgrace to be beaten in the state that we’re in by a Brentford side who are much further from the beach than we are. 

The real work has already been done.  The prize that awaits is much more tantalising than this pallid performance, more tantalising even than rubbing shoulders with the clubs at the top table.  The prize is the ongoing security of our football club – not a terribly romantic way of thinking about it, but a pandemic and relegation from the top flight were always going to be an unfortunate combination.  And with a prevailing wind we’ll all be there to see it.  All of us.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Cathcart 2, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 3, Masina 3, Hughes 3, *Gosling 3*, Cleverley 3, Hungbo 3, Gray 3, Sema 2
Subs: Zinckernagel (for Hungbo, 24) 2, Success (for Cleverley, 31) 2, Wilmot (for Hughes, 85) NA, Perica (for Gray, 85) NA, Pochettino (for Gosling, 85) NA, Lazaar, Troost-Ekong, Navarro, Foster

Dirty Dozen : Brentford 30/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Nonsense.
10 comments

 

Please note that the Brentford report will not be promoted on Twitter this weekend in line with the #socialmediaboycott which you can read about here

You’ll be able to access it by heading straight to https://bhappy.wordpress.com

“Dirty Dozen” is a feature that I write for the match programme;  mindful that the programme might be enjoying a slightly lower readership than is normal, I’m reproducing the pieces that were in the corresponding home programme prior to away games for the rest of the season (with the club’s permission).

Format is simple – twelve questions, how many do you know the answers to?

Feel free to enter your responses or scores in comments but I won’t be marking them. Answers at the top of the comments.

  1. Whose thunderous winner was decisive the last time we faced the Bees at Vicarage Road (prior to this season)?
  2. Which manager left Griffin Park to take over at Vicarage Road in August 1990?
  3. In which year did Brentford last win a league game against the Hornets?
  4. Which later Watford Player of the Season was the last player to join the Hornets from Brentford?
  5. In March 2005 the Bees signed two players from the Hornets on the same day. One was an ex-Player of the Year, the other a one-time leading scorer at Vicarage Road.  Name them.
  6. Which nicknames is older, Brentford’s Bees or Watford’s Hornets?
  7. Brentford owner Matthew Benham is majority shareholder of which European side, Champions League qualifiers in 2020/21?
  8. Four former Watford FC employees have taken charge of Brentford as either full-time or caretaker manager in the last 20 years. Name them.
  9. Which former Hornets midfielder was the Bees’ Player of the Season as they finished fifth in the table behind the promoted Hornets in 2014/15?
  10. Which Watford-born TV presenter was on Brentford’s pro books in the 1970s without making an appearance for the senior side?
  11. In April 1993, the Hornets beat the Bees 1-0 at Vicarage Road. This was the last victory in front of the Vicarage Road terrace, and relegated Brentford to the third tier.  Whose penalty was the only goal of the game?
  12. What would win in a fight between a Bumble Bee and a Hornet?

Watford 1 Millwall 0 (24/04/2021) 25/04/2021

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
16 comments

1. Give a carton of drink to a small child and they’ll probably need some help plunging the straw into the hole, before sucking all of the juice out in under a minute. When it’s almost empty, they’ll happily sit there making loud, revolting slurping sounds for several minutes longer. Those minutes will feel like hours. May actually be hours. And when they’re finally bored, they’ll hand you back a collapsed, wrung-out shell, and they’ll ask for another one. Or some sweets.

It’s really very hard not to see football in a similar light. I can’t have been the only person who, while gleefully watching the Super League fall apart on Tuesday night, felt a familiar weariness at the prospect of having to admit those clubs back, of having to accept competition further distorted by their avarice. An initial flash of annoyance aside, I’d come to rather relish the prospect of them being banished. There’d be a financial shock, of course, but I’ve never bought the idea that domestic competitions would be greatly devalued by their absence, and I suggest, as an example, that had we won either of our two FA Cup finals, we wouldn’t be overly troubling ourselves with caveats about who we’d played en route.

The shock at the plan revealed that far too many people simply haven’t been paying attention, in certain cases out of political convenience. All of the fury would’ve been much better vented at the horse or the stable door or the stable hands or the stable managers before the bolting. UEFA’s 2024 plan, which somehow seemed to contrive to be both a trigger for the breakaway and a hasty reaction to it, pushes another wedge into existing fault-lines. It’d be nice to imagine that having revealed their loaded gun to be a browning banana, the breakaway clubs would find it much harder to press their demands on the governing body in future, but I wonder how long the break from normal service will last. I give it a fortnight.

2. But these last few days have made me look at it all differently. That annoying tendency to search out the grey in a black and white argument means that I’m uncomfortable with some of the hand-wringing: Barney Ronay wrote a rather operatic piece for the Guardian in which he claimed that the Super League “will make you hate football, but still buy football.” And I think…would it, though? Is that not just another way of allowing those clubs to dictate terms, to shape our experience of the game? You don’t have to buy your books from Amazon. The revival of actual bookshops demonstrates that it’s possible for consumers to set a different agenda, that nostalgia for something lost can translate into enjoyment of something alive.

And besides, some of this alienation – including mine – comes from a position of privilege. Were I not male, white and straight, I might never have felt at home in a football ground in the first place; even if I had, I might well have discovered that others objected to my presence, perhaps verbally, perhaps violently. You only get to cry that “the game’s gone!” if you felt as if it was yours to lose.

Because the game hasn’t gone if you’re a member of Proud Hornets or the LBGTQ+ groups springing up at other clubs. The game’s actually – finally – welcoming you into the fold, embracing diversity rather than expecting or demanding uniformity. It hasn’t gone if you’re one of the users of the Sensory Room at Vicarage Road. The club announced that it was joining forces with Hertfordshire Mind Network for this game and it struck me that these things have become routine when, once upon a time, a football club involving itself in mental health initiatives might’ve been considered remarkable. We’re the Community Club of the Year in our region and that means as much as promotion in my eyes. It means even more, I imagine, to those whose lives benefit. Marvin Sordell, who’s spoken out so eloquently about mental health and racism within the game since his retirement, was elected to the PFA Players Board this week. What if the greatest impact made by a graduate of our academy wasn’t actually on the pitch? How amazing would that be?

And proud as that all makes me, it isn’t just us. You really don’t have to search very hard for clubs with similarly positive, progressive, adventurous values, for ownership which achieves far more than self-aggrandisement. Accrington, Wimbledon, Brighton, Forest Green; I imagine there are plenty of others who don’t like to talk about it quite so much, who do a lot of work that’s unseen and uncelebrated. Much further down the pyramid, Hastings United has just started offering free coaching for youngsters of all abilities; it had nearly fifty kids on the first night of its Girls Academy during the week, and three times that for the session in progress as I drove past the ground just after 9am on Saturday morning; a mission statement aims to follow Lewes in achieving parity between the men’s and women’s teams.

And modern footballers have become significantly less insular, less self-absorbed. Whatever the quibbles with its effectiveness, it’s remarkable to see players taking collective political action at every kickoff; it’s worth noting what that is as well as what it arguably fails to be. Every time a well-known name engages with a cause, it chips away at the idea that football should be beyond politics – as if the eighties never happened, as if racist abuse is just banter, as if the soon-to-be Premier League champions aren’t funded by oil money – and makes activism seem just that little bit more acceptable and accessible. It doesn’t need every player, just enough. Not every fan, just enough. Not every club, just enough.

Maybe you don’t agree with all of that. Maybe you even object to some of it. So be it. My point is that grassroots football doesn’t have to begin in the local park, with jumpers for goalposts; grassroots football begins with people, with smiles on faces, with care for others, with space for everyone. With ideas, stories, families, friends. Small acts of kindness, generosity, rebellion, empowerment, achievement. Football can do that so well. Football often is doing that so well, and we shouldn’t lose that in the shadows cast by the arrogance and greed of venture capitalists and oligarchs, or the casual hatred of social media. My point is that every club should be a grassroots club.

3. Perhaps my view of it all has been affected by the other events of Tuesday night. It’s really difficult to be resolute in your pessimism in the face of something as utterly invigorating as our win at Norwich. (Abrupt gear change. Sorry if you spilt your tea down your front. Anyway…)

There’s often discussion about whether performances or results matter more, about whether fans merely want to see their team win…and while I don’t doubt that I’d have been a happy man if we’d defended deep and beaten the Canaries with a late deflected shot, it wouldn’t have fired the imagination in anything like the same way. I keep seeing that midfield three on the hunt, keep seeing them savaging the ball carrier like rabid seagulls spotting someone eating some chips. It was an astonishingly visceral experience, given that it came down a cable into a laptop screen.

To my mind – and again, I do appreciate that I’m a part-timer these days – it’s been a while since we’ve been able to point decisively and say, “That. That’s us. That’s what we’re about.” We were crap at Luton, but we at least have a very clear idea of what not crap is supposed to look like. Tuesday night was…definitive.

4. And this isn’t, but these occasions rarely are. Too much at stake, too much context. You spend the approaching days imagining, against all experience, the glorious release of scoring three by half-time and turning the second half into a lap of honour in the sunshine, but it’s never going to be that way. Your instinct is that you want to be in the ground, able to sing your heart out to drag them over the line, but even that’s an illusion: the reality is that all you get is simmering tension on days like these, and any noise tends to tense up into an anxious, shrill buzz, a collective tinnitus. Nerves take over. If it was easy to achieve stuff, we’d have achieved a lot more stuff, that’s the thing.

For twenty minutes or so, it does actually tend towards imagination over experience. Millwall barely touch the ball for the first five, happy to get their bearings, but that allows us to push up enough to threaten their penalty area. Ismaïla Sarr makes a first attempt at getting behind the Millwall defence, of which more imminently; Dan Gosling surges through the midfield; Adam Masina drives up the left wing; João Pedro takes the ball away from Tom Cleverley on the penalty spot. Ken Sema drifts everywhere, Will Hughes does his Jack Russell impression; we’re confident and urgent and recognisably the same team which so impressed at Carrow Road.

Recalling Kiko Femenía is very obviously the right decision, given the likely requirements of the contest, if harsh on Craig Cathcart. Femenía’s little one-two with Sarr is perfection, pure simplicity; the resulting penalty conceded by Billy Mitchell incontestable (although Phil is no doubt red-faced and livid). The spot-kick is rolled down the middle, a little mis-hit due to a last-moment movement of the ball, a long way from the thwack, crack and rustle we’ve become accustomed to hearing when Troy lines them up. It doesn’t matter. They all count, and this one more than most.

With the wind in our sails and Millwall a little flustered, we briefly suggest that we might make this a comfortable afternoon by adding a second. Dan Gosling – whose late arrival, both in the penalty area and the campaign, is a reminder of how well we’ve used the resources at our disposal – should score when afforded a free header from a Tom Cleverley free kick. Another midfield surge feeds João Pedro, who’s crowded out as he tries to get a shot away. Will Hughes slices a drive wide from outside the box; at the current rate of progress, he’ll belt one of those into the top corner at Spurs on Boxing Day, so pencil that in your diary (and wait for VAR to wipe it out after a five minute pause to review an offside invisible to the naked eye). We’re bright and confident, and the afternoon is ours.

5. If there’s a turning point, it’s possibly the injury to Kiko Femenía, sustained in chasing a lost cause on the touchline, collapsing with a pulled muscle right in front of the dugouts. Hard to argue that it’s a matter of personnel, although we find it harder to get the ball to Sarr thereafter, so perhaps it’s more about lost momentum, about time to think. That being the case, Craig Cathcart is almost a tactical replacement, perfectly suited to the game it becomes rather than the game it briefly was, and his stint at right-back once again has a thoroughly satisfying heft to it, like picking up a beautifully-made hammer and feeling its delicate balance in your hand. There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about playing people out of position, as if you can reduce football to a few hard-and-fast rules; if it was that simple, we’d have bored of it long ago.

Whatever the reason, the nerves start to cut at our control of the game. The midfield becomes busy rather than dominant, the forward line isolated beyond it. We begin to concede free kicks in our own final third, unwise against a side with a player as gigantic as Jake Cooper, Millwall’s looming captain. From one of those, Bradshaw half-volleys narrowly wide, the first of so many warnings that they stop being, you know, warnings and become an actual crisis as half-time approaches. Daniel Bachmann has to save well from a firmly-struck Wallace drive, before the ball’s returned to the danger area and Bennett’s effort is deflected onto the top of the crossbar; from the corner, Malone hides behind the referee, or something, and has acres of space at the far post, heading very wastefully wide.

That last effort aside, the theme is that little goes uncontested: we’re a disciplined, determined defensive unit, and we make things difficult for opponents, often turning chances into half-chances. That contributes to snatched shots, wasted opportunities. It wouldn’t do not to acknowledge that we had two managers this season, and that Xisco has sometimes reaped the benefit of Vladimir Ivić’s intensely tedious focus on defensive matters.  The clean sheets are earned, here as elsewhere, and we’ll need all of that fortitude as the afternoon grinds on. (We’ll need a whole lot more next season, for these are half-chances which get buried at a higher level, but we can worry about that when the hangovers have cleared.)

6. The hope voiced by Hive Live’s slightly awkward double act of the very proper Kenny Jackett and the extremely excitable Chris Stark, a relationship that you sense might fray quite quickly, is that we start the second half well. We do not start the second half well. We start the second half as if we’ve spent the interval drinking coffee with shaking hands while staring into space and contemplating a must-win final game against Swansea. Which is quite possibly what many of us actually did at half-time, I guess.

In the end, Millwall are never granted that one chance, the one which transforms this day into another day. Bradshaw turns the ball over the bar from a Wallace cross, Bennett goes on a run and shoots well wide, Bradshaw beats Francisco Sierralta but has little idea what he’s supposed to do after that point. (In passing, I just had to look up Sierralta’s first name, not having the faintest idea what it was, which suggests that it’s the first time I’ve mentioned him in a report. That is telling, really telling: he is not a central defender who makes many mistakes, not a central defender who needs to make many noteworthy interventions. He spends no time in the spotlight. The season’s highlights will be full of the match-winners, but they’ve been able to win matches because of the less celebrated contributions, because of the hard graft put in. In the absence of one outstanding candidate, the men of the match reflect that.)

7. We make changes. Those changes help. Andre Gray has had a difficult time, some of it entirely his own fault, and has a playing style which somehow serves to expose his limitations rather than highlight his strengths; he makes for an ideal hour-mark substitute, though, and our attack is visibly refreshed for a short period in which we suggest that we might manage to kill the game. Nathaniel Chalobah, such a deeply engaging player, does the same for the midfield. Almost immediately, Gray takes away a defender to allow Bachmann’s long clearance to bounce through to Sarr, who might win a penalty for a nudge on a day when he hasn’t already won another. The respite is brief, though: Mitchell’s deflected shot momentarily appears as if it’s destined to arc into an unreachable part of the goal, before Bachmann gets down well to flip away a Bradshaw header which rebounds towards the bottom corner.

The second half lasts for hours, weeks, months, years, lifetimes. It never descends into outright panic, yet never enables you to take a deep breath either. We have another spell on the front foot, and Gray very nearly gets a decisive toe onto a driven cross from Sarr, and then does well to get a volley on target from a lofted ball into the box, and then Chalobah’s flicked header from a Hughes cross goes straight at the keeper when a slightly different contact would sent it skidding beyond his reach. Ken Sema is offside as he receives and finishes a pass intended for Chalobah, the end point of an intricate passing move at the edge of a crowded penalty area; that would’ve been a goal replayed through the ages, a goal to crown the season.

But instead, the ninety-plus minutes crawls to a halt with still more defending. With William Troost-Ekong giving the ball away with a nervous, hasty pass. With increasingly wild Millwall shots, which lull your brain into thoughts that we might make it, which shock your brain into horror that you might’ve tempted fate. With Ismaïla bloody Sarr battling for all he’s worth (which is a lot, I believe) down by the corner flag to win a goal-kick deep into injury time, and if anything sums up the fighting spirit which we’ve managed to build since Christmas, it’s surely that.

This is a team with stars, of course. But it’s a team which plays as if it can’t afford that luxury; it’s a team which plays with hunger and desire, a team which plays as if it isn’t the most talented squad in the division. That’s the achievement. Not to make it seem easy, but to understand that it’s difficult, to relish that difficulty, to fling ourselves head-first into it.

8. I sink into the sofa, close my eyes for a moment, smile…and wonder what to do. On the pitch, there are hugs, grins, a few tears being wiped away. A party getting started. In the stands, there are empty seats. At home, there’s dinner to be cooked, washing up to be done, life to get on with. It’s an odd way to end an odd season, and it feels as if the meaning of it all will filter through over time, a slow dawning.

The Hive Live ‘Promotion Party’ on the club’s YouTube channel is a noble attempt at getting people to stay at home rather than come to the ground, and provides the background to an hour in the kitchen. Understandably, it has few of the people you’d really want to hear from, little of their giddy delirium, their untethered emotion. They’ve got other things to do. Ben Foster and Daniel Bachmann make an early appearance and have that weird goalkeeper camaraderie, like a little club with its own unknowable rules, which seem to include not hating the bloke who’s taken your starting place. Troy turns up for an oddly awkward interview, in which he himself seems aware that he isn’t really catching the mood; he finds his theme eventually, reminding us of the staff whose jobs are dependent on players’ performances, but still seems relieved to be able to go.

It isn’t until Chris Stark drags Scott Duxbury into the studio that someone really resoundingly captures it all. It’s a remarkably powerful, arrestingly honest five minutes, and you sense so much of the last year’s depression, despair, worry and anxiety beginning to unwind and let go as he speaks. A lot of lost sleep, a lot of difficult decisions. He talks of the prospect of financial oblivion, of the importance of staying together as a family; he describes this as being his greatest achievement. It isn’t an Adrian Boothroyd moment, if you know what I mean; there’s no sense of personal redemption, of satisfied ego. It’s just pure escape, sheer relief. We’ve done it.

And when I read what Xisco Muñoz had to say afterwards – “I have been away from my kids for six months and it is very hard sometimes to be without the family” – I’m reminded of how this year, more than anything, has been a deeply lonely one. Of how alone you must feel if you’ve just moved to a new country to take on a new challenge, of how hard it must be to go into work with a spring in your step, of how bleak the bad days must be. Of how every last grain of the beaming positivity he’s brought to the team and the club has come at a personal cost: you never get that time with your family back, you can’t buy it with your pay packet. We don’t always appreciate those sacrifices. And I’m even more grateful for that smile, for how it has shone on our mad little football club.

It may not have been an impossible task, given the squad. But if I look back over my time as a season ticket holder, I’d pick all three of the post-relegation seasons as the most miserable, without a moment’s hesitation. Not necessarily the worst, but by far the most miserable. The combination of shattered confidence, pent-up bitterness and inflated expectation can create something truly toxic, something that can take years to entirely dispel. We don’t need to try very hard to remember it: we were living that particular nightmare only a few short months ago.

And yet here we are. We’ve remembered who we are, what we can do, why we should do it. That isn’t down to just one man, of course; it’s a huge team effort. It really needed his help, though.

The history of Watford Football Club has many great people, many wonderful stories. It’s just got another one. And a Neil Diamond song.

 

Bachmann 4, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 3, *Sierralta 4*, Masina 3, Hughes 3, Cleverley 4, Gosling 3, Sarr 4, João Pedro 3, *Sema 4*
Subs: *Cathcart (for Femenía, 31) 4*, Gray (for João Pedro, 60) 3, Chalobah (for Gosling, 60) 3, Sánchez (for Cleverley, 84) NA, Foster, Zinckernagel, Lazaar, Kabasele, Hungbo

Norwich City 0 Watford 1 (20/04/2021) 21/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
Tags: , , ,
39 comments

1-    I’m a grumpy bastard.

Ask anyone.  Type I Diabetes doesn’t always help in this regard…  hypoglycaemia, low blood sugar, is effectively an excess of hormone and has the impact you’d expect on the mood at moderate levels…  weepiness and particularly, yes, snappiness.  My lifetime memories are peppered with Incidents when Stuff Happened that shouldn’t have done…  sometimes seems a wonder that I’ve retained any friends or family members willing to pass the time of day at all really.  

But I’m a grumpy bastard anyway.  Hypoglycaemia-induced grumpiness tends to disappear with the help of some quickly absorbed sugar but I can do and – here’s where the dedicated training and stamina come in – sustain grumpy without any physiological support.  And as with the rest of the footballing world – and isn’t it nice to see everyone coming together on a topic for once – I’m grumpy about the Super (and Tottenham) League.  The hows and whys don’t need repeating… you know it, you’ll have seen it lucidly argued amidst the rare consensus and in any case it looks like it might be unwinding as I type.  If it isn’t, we’ll moan about that another day…

But back to early evening, and I’m still grumpy.  What I really need is a football match to shout at.  Not just a match on a screen but a match to inhale.  In the stadium.  Noises and smells and adrenaline.  Watching outside.  But that’s not where we are.  So instead I eat up the time before Hornet Hive starts its pre-match show by stomping forcefully around the fields out back with grumpy-appropriate noise in my ears.  Jane’s Addiction.  Sonic Youth.  Nine Inch Nails.  Get back, brace myself, grab a drink, check phone on the way upstairs, turns out kick-off is 6pm, not 7pm (as it was in my head). I make it with minutes to spare.

Grumpy.

2- It’s been an edgy few days.  You don’t need telling that. The possibility, however remote, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory has been in our heads… not “in your face, I’m coming for you” in our heads, but certainly “raising a hand from the back of the room and tentatively waving – yoohoo!” in our heads.  “I’m still here”.  As an aside, such an eventuality wouldn’t be typical Watford as some have suggested.  Typical Watford would be typical Gillingham, typical Liverpool, typical Rushden and Diamonds if we supported them.  No reflection on the club, it’s an anxious reaction to the threat of failure, it’s a comfort blanket and unless you support Spurs, its nonsense.

But we needed something here.  Something to calm the nerves after Saturday’s unpleasantness.  Something to make the rest of the week tolerable.  Something to reassure us that it was all going to be OK.

Boy did we get it. We deserve promotion this season.  We haven’t gotten away with anything, if and when it’s confirmed we’ll have earned it (hellooooo again Spurs).  At the start of the season we were solid… less than the sum of our parts, perhaps, frustrating at times but often effective despite that, and effective enough to hang around at the top of the table.  To be in position to capitalise if and when we found some form.  When we did find that form we looked occasionally flamboyant, often cruelly, mercilessly irresistible – twenty clean sheets before today.

But we’ve never been more impressive than here at Carrow Road.  Given the context – easier to be the chaser than the chased, the Luton defeat, players suspended, players injured, quality of opponent – the mental strength of the side was extraordinary, the ability of the head coach to craft solutions and get players’ heads in the right place phenomenal.  And on the pitch we looked every inch a top flight side.

3- The solution on the pitch, it transpired, involved Craig Cathcart at right back.  A shame that Jeremy Ngakia, forced into a supporting role by the remarkable form of Kiko Femenía, has a knock just when he’s needed, but if we don’t have a reliable right back available we have a very reliable defender.  There’s nobody you’d trust more to make a decent fist of an unfamiliar role and the Ulsterman, never quite appreciated enough to my mind, will have a stunning evening.  The solution also involves Adam Masina making a welcome return at left back, and an in-your-face midfield trio of Hughes, Gosling, Cleverley.  That’s not a midfield that asks permission.  That’s not a polite midfield.

After a brief period of early sparring, the Hornets controlled the first quarter of the game.  If there’s a word that defines the performance as a whole it’s discipline, so vital against this opponent with their ability to escape through careless gaps and skip unforgivingly over misjudged tackles.  This was a disciplined, controlled effort, and if we were fortunate to visit Carrow Road three days after the ten-man Canaries had chased Bournemouth around before celebrating their promotion we took a crowbar to that opportunity and prized it open.

Much of the threat came down the right despite the loss of the overlapping Kiko, a role which Cathcart was never going to replicate.  Slightly mystifyingly, Ismaïla Sarr was often given the freedom of the flank in the first half by second choice City left back Xavi Quintillà who, despite having not started since October, seemed to receive precious little support from his teammates.  Cathcart’s more restrained support to Sarr nonetheless reminded us – as if this should have been necessary six years to the week since his acrobatic winner against Birmingham put us top of the Championship table – that he’s anything but a clogger.  A particularly fine deep cross provided the first of a number of chances in this period, Dan Gosling seemingly surprised that it reached him and heading wastefully over.  It wasn’t the last time that a move ended with an unsuccessful Gosling effort, but as Robbo pointed out at the break none of these missed half-chances dissuaded Gosling from being on the end of the next one when it came along.  Those words were to prove prophetic.

Two deflected shots in two minutes by Todd Cantwell and Kieran Dowell announced Norwich’s arrival as an attacking threat, and a magnificent game of football broke out abetted by referee Tim Robinson’s willingness, seven yellow cards notwithstanding, to let the game run rather than blowing up for every challenge.  Norwich moved the ball mischievously and confidently, Watford’s human blanket smothered City attacks and clubbed them to within an inch of their lives.  Norwich broke down the centre through Buendía, Hughes and Sema were bypassed but resisted the temptation to foul, the ball reached Quintillà and then Cantwell before being smothered by Cleverley and out.  Often stretched – twice free kicks were surrendered on the edge of the box, the second repelled by Tom Cleverley’s draught excluder – but rarely exposed it was a defensive masterclass as the home side asked questions.

We swung back into control.  Sarr left the formidable Hanley on his ample backside with a sharp turn and drove at Tim Krul’s near post when a square ball might have been more effective.  Five minutes later Sarr moved the ball across to Gosling who fed Sema and the Swede – in his most pugnacious outing for a while – drove fiercely at the keeper.  Krul parried, Sarr followed up with a fine drive from a narrow angle, Krul equal to it again.  Sema sent in a cross from the left, João Pedro’s acrobatic volley was blocked, we failed to make anything from yet another corner.  The half ended, but the voice in your head whispering “we should have scored by now” was calmed by our bloody relentlessness.  We might not have scored, but we weren’t about to falter.

4- Lucky half time “chocolate” turned out to be my dinner.  Ethiopian injera with spinach, garlic, split peas and a beef stew.  Success level high, but with this best will in the world this is not a tradition that can be expected to continue once we’re back at the Vic.  It’s messy enough with a plate and a healthy supply of kitchen roll in your own home.

This development rather hampered the note-taking at the start of the second half, which by memory was more of the same but more so.  Even more focused control, another Todd Cantwell chance despite this, but overall a crushing intensity to our play.  Having finished my meal and dashed to the bathroom to wash my hands I returned to the study to rearrange tray, notepad, keyboard appropriately.  As so often my finger strayed to the screenlock key as I moved the keyboard, causing a frantic typing of password in time to see João Pedro slip an artful ball to a galloping Gosling who flicked a shot past Krul.   Watford supporters everywhere made undignified, very loud noises.  How inspiring that Gos got the goal having spurned so many chances in the first half.  Those misses, ultimately, mattered little.  Being there yet again to tuck it away at the fifth time of asking was everything.

Norwich lost their composure, if only briefly.  Teemu Pukki was demonstrably frustrated by the way the evening was going, Skipp was booked for an untidy foul on Hughes.  You awaited an onslaught, the onslaught tried to get itself going but we had a bunch of tough, savvy bastards blocking the way…  Clevs, Gos, Hughes, Masina, Sierralta, WTE and Craig Cathcart, who stomped on the danger when a slack Bachmann clearance dropped to Buendía.

Had you been in the stadium, had a crowd been in the stadium, it would have been one of those insanely tense ones where your fingers were embedded in your scalp.  It was edgy enough as it was…  but these things feed themselves with a crowd in attendance.  Who knows what difference collective anxiety, urgency would have made.  As it was we were gloriously assertive for much of the half.  Sarr, slightly less prominent after the break, drilled a ball towards João Pedro… the Brazilian suggested limited threat on goal, but did a great line in holding the ball up and floating off with it, retaining possession under unlikely pressure.  Here Grant Hanley (“a head on a stick” – Tommy Mooney) blocked crucially.  From the corner Will Hughes came close to emulating his goal against Fulham two years ago, crashing a goalbound volley from the edge of the area that someone got in the way of.

Norwich threw on as many forwards as they could find.  The Hornets introduced Andre Gray, who’s ratty persistence might have made rather more of the chances we’d had in the first half, and Nathaniel Chalobah whose glorious, eyecatching cameo underlined that he’s finally become the player that he always promised to be.  He slipped Andre Gray through with elegant precision only for Hanley to intervene with a monstrous block.

Max Aarons sounded a clarion call breaking down the right, but we held the home side off with breathtaking composure.  City managed two shots on target all evening… their best chances came when Buendía, Vrančić or Hernández danced across the sentinels inside the area daring a challenge, inviting a foul.  Those invitations weren’t accepted.  “Sorry lads, washing our hair.  Do one”.  Otherwise the greatest threat came to personal safety, from the violent and gormless interventions of sub Jordan Hugill.

Eight minutes of added time were brought to a close with Sema robbing Vrančić and bellowing in triumph.  The whistle went.  We made further undignified noises.

5- It’s not done yet.  Probably and definitely aren’t the same thing.  However, very probably is definitely getting there.  The three sides mathematically capable of catching us will be down to two at most by Saturday afternoon with Brentford and Bournemouth facing off at lunch time.  A win against Millwall would seal the deal, with Norwich travelling to form side QPR the same afternoon.

It doesn’t matter what they do.  It’s all about us.  We’re going to get promoted because we’re bloody brillliant, and better than everyone else.  And didn’t we show it this evening.

Not grumpy any more.

Yooorns.

Bachmann 5, Cathcart 5, Troost-Ekong 5, Sierralta 5, Masina 5, Hughes 5, Gosling 5, *Cleverley 5*, Sarr 5, João Pedro 5, Sema 5
Subs: Gray (for João Pedro, 70) 5, Chalobah (for Gosling, 70) 5, Zinckernagel (for Cleverley, 82) 5, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 82) 5, Lazaar, Sánchez, Hungbo, Success, Elliot

Dirty Dozen : Norwich City 20/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Nonsense.
14 comments

“Dirty Dozen” is a feature that I write for the match programme;  mindful that the programme might be enjoying a slightly lower readership than is normal, I’m reproducing the pieces that were in the corresponding home programme prior to away games for the rest of the season (with the club’s permission).

Format is simple – twelve questions, how many do you know the answers to?

Feel free to enter your responses or scores in comments but I won’t be marking them. Answers at the top of the comments.

  1. Watford were promoted to the top flight with the Canaries in both 2015 and 1982. Who are the only other club with whom we have been promoted more than once in our Football League history?
  2. Who won promotion medals with both Watford and Norwich City in 2015?
  3. The Hornets pulled off a surprise debut at Carrow Road on the opening day of the season in 2010. Unusually for a season opener there was only one debut in the Watford ranks. Who?
  4. The Norwich side that won 2-1 at Vicarage Road late in the 2003/04 season on their way to the Division One (second tier) title contained two players who ended their careers having scored for the Hornets against Manchester United in the top flight. Who?
  5. In 1985 City won the Milk (League) Cup. Their opponents in the final were Sunderland, who had beaten the Hornets in the quarter-final.  What remains unique about that final?
  6. Which striker, currently playing in the Spanish third tier with Herculés de Alicante, scored his only Watford goal against Norwich in the League Cup in 2013?
  7. Which midfielder, who played for the Hornets in three different divisions, was the last player to join City from the Hornets?
  8. Who made the 85th and final appearance of their Watford career at Carrow Road last season?
  9. Which two Welsh internationals were on the scoresheet when City became the first British side to beat Bayern Munich in their Olympic Stadium in 1993/94’s UEFA Cup?
  10. In which position did former City boss Mike Walker play over 100 games for Watford?
  11. Who, as manager of Norwich City, led his side on an open-top bus tour of St Albans?
  12. The only player that Watford have ever signed from Norwich City on a permanent basis is also City’s all-time record goalscorer.  What was his name?

Luton Town 1 Watford 0 (17/04/2021) 18/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
Tags: , , ,
16 comments

1-  When this is all over, whenever everything is finally back to whatever normal means now, you’d like to think that there will be things that we won’t take quite as much for granted.  Health and freedom and that, obviously…  but more mundane things too.   Going to the cinema, I really miss that.  Going to the pub.  Going to restaurants, sitting indoors rather than shivering defiantly in the drizzle over a pathetic pizza.  Nipping down to the co-op for some milk and not having to queue up outside.  Going to work.  Heavens.  By which I mean actually being at work with real people rather than isolated in my little bubble with two dimensional colleagues.  All of these things I hope I’ll appreciate so much more, as and when.  All of them I miss.

What I haven’t been missing is games against Luton.

2- There’s a digression here about what local rivalry is all about.  I was always brought up to treat Luton as a swear word and so forth, but I’m not sure I buy the bit about you have to hate Luton if you’re a Watford fan any longer.  It’s more nurture than nature for me…  I’m sure my tone would change very quickly if these fixtures become a more regular feature of our fixture list than they have been, contempt breeds contempt.  I’d probably not be writing this paragraph if we’d had the misfortune to be at today’s game, so to speak, the deed would have been done, I’d be exposed to all the things I hated about it before.  For the moment, I find Bournemouth and even Palace a bigger deal.

That aside.  There’s been some understandable reminiscing about one particular derby game in the build up to this one….  but the reality is that that day was remarkable because it was anomalous.  That’s not what derby games are like in anything other than exceptional circumstances.  This game, today’s game, was much more like it… not the result particularly, but the frantic ugly dreary annoyingness of the whole thing.  In between Luton’s 4-2 win at the Vic in September 1994, their last League victory in the fixture before today, and the 4-0 three years later there were six draws.  I was probably at all of them, but don’t ask me to distinguish one from the other.  They were all the same, and they were all shit.

The other thing about derby games is that they matter so much more when your team is terrible.  In the past Watford and Luton’s fortunes often rose and fell together and at times it very much felt as if all there was to play for was avoiding relegation and this.  This Luton incarnation isn’t terrible – they’re in pretty much exactly the League position you’d have predicted based on their solid but limited showing at the Vic at the start of the season.  Nonetheless, the Hornets have rather more to play for as it stands;  Luton’s survival was confirmed mathematically by this win, but effectively a done deal some time ago.  Knocking us off our perch a very much more tantalising objective for them than not being knocked off would be for us..

3- And having implied that we were lucky, or that I was grateful not to have been at this particular game, if only half-meaning it, the reality is that the game would have been quite different if supporters had been there.  We wouldn’t have been at this particular game at all.  

I suspect that the game that we ended up with wouldn’t have been a whole lot of fun either.  The home side started looking precisely like a side managed by someone who was pissed that their first attempt at a local derby was so vanilla back in September;  the same approach backed by a crowd would have generated its own momentum.  They rattled at us from the off and we looked rattled in return;  Troost-Ekong gave away a cheap corner in the first minute, Sonny Bradley flicked over.  Within five minutes Carlos Sánchez – one of two enforced changes to last week’s line-up – went to ground to win possession in the box.  Being Sánchez, the tackle was well-judged and precise but it didn’t settle the nerves.  Ten minutes in and it was all hands on deck;  a set piece threat was already evident but fortunately one man well suited to this sort of maelstrom was Francisco Sierralta, long since established as a fearless booterer in the finest of traditions. He got his head to pretty much everything.

And whilst we rode our luck at times, the positive to be taken from the first half – as from the entirety of the game against Reading last week – was that we held out.  That’s not all luck, much as Bradley and Dewsbury-Hall both sent efforts wide but alarmingly close to not wide. When things are going against us we’re very good at being bloody awkward anyway, at closing out space, at digging in and not giving an inch.

If we had managed to get any kind of attacking foothold the flow of the game might have changed much earlier.  There was an awful lot of space behind Luton’s press, but we couldn’t retain controlled possession far enough up the pitch to exploit it – the ball wasn’t sticking anywhere.  Only once or twice did Sarr get to stretch his legs, drawing a yellow from Bradley (“not the sharpest tool in the drawer” – T.Mooney) but too often such possession as we had was surrendered cheaply, and often by Philip Zinckernagel.  That thing, that “he’s getting better with every game” thing is dead in the water…  he’s demonstrated beyond reasonable debate that there’s a valuable player in there, but there are still giveaway signs that he’s been playing at a very different level and they all came out today.  Almost every touch killed a fledgling attack stone dead, most startlingly when Luton abandoned him in a mile of space as Will Hughes lined up a free kick and he proceeded to validate their recklessness by rolling Hughes’ disguised pass feebly, inexplicably to Sluga.

Nonetheless we ended the half level, with Tommy Mooney confidently asserting that Luton’s ferocious chasing was always going to abate.  Nil nil at half time was an achievement.

4- You learn a lot about a manager when things turn against him, as they always will sooner or later.  When we went up in 2015 Norwich followed us up crowing about the record of Alex Neil, appointed during the season to great success.  Once promoted, once the losses started coming, they didn’t stop.

Xisco hasn’t had a clear run at Vicarage Road, but his early defeats can justifiably be filed under “teething troubles”.  We’ll see how he gets on now, but the signs here were fairly positive.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes and his bold decisions here deserved better reward.  Both sides were hamstrung by an awful bobbly pitch, but the Hornets were to a greater extent needing a foothold, so having a target to hit long – João Pedro is still game, but not combative in the way he was a couple of months ago – made a lot of sense.  Isaac started assertively, his foul on Pearson was provocative but not a major problem if it indicated a bit of bite to channel positively.  Within five minutes João Pedro had picked up the ball deep and fed Success.  Success released Sema whose vicious cross was headed clear.  The ball found its way back to Ken, who did his “bundle down the touchline” thing.  It came to nothing, but it was a bit of welly for the first time.  It was encouraging.

And that was that really, at least as far as Isaac was concerned.  It was an unforgivably passive performance from the Nigerian, lacking in aggression or mobility.   Out for a year or otherwise, we needed much more.  

Ten minutes later the ever-willing Hughes surged onto a João Pedro flick, but with Success, Sema and Sarr spinning away from him he was uncharacteristically indecisive and sent a wasteful ball under Success’ feet.  We were no longer under the same pressure as in the first half, but not turning any kind of screw either.  Gradually the home side began to craft some more chances – Dewsbury-Hall sent a good ball into the box, criminally shovelled over.  LuaLua won a cheap free kick off Femeníá, who picked up a harsh and consequential yellow card; Bachmann was attentive in tipping the subsequent shot over.

Eventually we allowed Luton to roll the dice once too often.  Achraf Lazaar had recovered from a pretty miserable first half as a late replacement for the unwell Masina to reclaim some brownie points at the start of the second, but there was no forgiving his complacent, underhit hospital ball towards Bachmann.  For his part, the keeper had been largely faultless to this point but betrayed a lack of composure and judgement here.  On the evidence to that point had Bachmann stayed on his line and allowed Adebayo to retrieve the ball the big striker might well have tripped over his own feet in any case but the Austrian never gave him the chance, clearing him out with an uncharacteristically excitable challenge.  He looked shaken by the whole thing and seemed to be expecting a red card rather than yellow though this was never likely.  The red card came later for a second cheap yellow picked up by a bedraggled Kiko Femenía;  by then Luton had afforded spot kicking duties to James Collins straight off the bench, a gamble that paid off.  That was all it took.

5- The thing is, the positive thing is that we so nearly got away with it in a number of respects.  Indeed, you could argue that we’ve been getting away with less convincing performances since the international break, four games have yielded seven points and could conceivably have yielded considerably more despite their limitations.  Here, Luton’s best efforts hadn’t yielded anything in the end, we gave them the goal.  Even then we might have nicked a point back when Andre Gray threw himself at what looked rather like a header from a Luton defender from a marginally offside position.  It would have been robbery, but it would have been funny and it would have been a valuable, buoyant point.

We regard the season as having pivoted in February, when we started looking like the sum of our parts, started winning games convincingly, started being fun.  If and when we do get promoted this season it will be due in just as great a part to the fact that we hung around to make such a turnaround possible when our attacking play was so staccato in the first half of the season.  Being bloody good at defending isn’t luck and it’s not something to dismiss or be bashful about. 

It wasn’t quite enough here, but as was pointed out at full time, an ostensibly likelier outcome of the traditional draw at Kenilworth Road along with home wins for Brentford and Swansea would have been more expensive for our promotion hopes than how it turned out.  We’re still looking good, and we’re still better than everyone else.  We could do with remembering this before Tuesday.  

Yooorns.

Bachmann 3, Femenía 2, Troost-Ekong 3, *Sierralta 4*, Lazaar 1, Sánchez 3, Hughes 3, Zinckernagel 1, Sarr 2, João Pedro 2, Sema 2
Subs: Success (for Zinckernagel, 45) 1, Cleverley (for Sánchez, 61) 3, Hungbo (for Sema, 79) NA, Gray (for Lazaar, 82) NA, Cathcart, Kabasele, Gosling, Navarro, Foster

Dirty Dozen : Luton Town 16/04/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Nonsense.
5 comments

“Dirty Dozen” is a feature that I write for the match programme;  mindful that the programme might be enjoying a slightly lower readership than is normal, I’m reproducing the pieces that were in the corresponding home programme prior to away games for the rest of the season (with the club’s permission).

Format is simple – twelve questions, how many do you know the answers to?

Feel free to enter your responses or scores in comments but I won’t be marking them. Answers at the top of the comments.

  1. Which future Hornet scored 57 goals for the then Conference Premier Hatters between March 2012 and June 2014?
  2. Derby games have been few and far between in recent years, but for how many consecutive seasons were Watford and Luton in the same division leading up to our Division Two title in 1998?
  3. Luton Town’s most capped player was sent off during Northern Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Spain during the 1982 World Cup. Name him, and the then Hornet who scored the only goal of the game.
  4. For how many seasons were away fans banned from Kenilworth Road during the late eighties?
  5. In which year did the Hatters most recently move from a predominantly white to orange home shirt?
  6. Which two ex-Hornets were joint leading scorers for the Hatters during the 2007-08 season?
  7. Hatters boss Nathan Jones played in Scarborough’s final league game during a loan spell in 1999. Which Watford legend came on as Jones was replaced as part of a double sub in the second half, and who was in charge of the Carlisle United side masterminding the great escape that relegated Scarborough thanks to keeper Jimmy Glass’ notorious late strike?
  8. Which former Luton and Premier League full back has this season come out of retirement to play for Ashton Town at the age of 40?
  9. In May 1983 David Pleat’s Hatters brought a full-strength side to Vicarage Road for a testimonial game four days before a relegation decider against Manchester City. Whose testimonial was it?
  10. Luton’s last league victory over the Hornets was a 4-2 victory at Vicarage Road in September 1994. Which Hornet made his only appearance for the side that day, and which long-serving Chief Executive retired on the same day?
  11. The unwelcome off-pitch events that preceded our League Cup encounter here 18 years ago meant that a planned minute’s silence was cancelled. What would that minute’s silence have commemorated?
  12. The first League encounter between today’s sides took place at Cassio Road in 1921, and finished 1-0 to Watford.  The only goal was scored by our first full international, a Welsh striker.  What was his name?

Watford 2 Reading 0 (09/04/2021) 10/04/2021

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
Tags:
9 comments

1. In my day-job – because I do have a day-job, which I squeeze into the time when I’m not being your second favourite match reporter, or devotedly clearing couch grass from the allotment, or playing the Pokemon Trading Card Game with Fred, or mercilessly hacking away at the riff from ‘Come As You Are’ on the guitar, or binge-eating Twiglets, or doing the washing up again, or fighting crime under a secret identity, or asleep – I’m half of a company which specialises in building websites for community history projects. No, it’s true. The catwalk modelling didn’t work out.

Many of the projects we’ve helped deal with stories, memories and reminiscences. The difference between historical fact and lived experience, if you like; the difference between selfie-saturated landmark and the warmth of home too. The first project we were involved in, more than twenty-five years ago but still on-going, was in Brighton, where a touchscreen exhibit was built from, among other things, photographs taken by people given disposable cameras and asked to capture their favourite places. The obvious candidates – the Royal Pavilion, the Lanes, both piers – came up comparatively rarely; by and large, those type of places aren’t where people eat their lunch, escape work stress, fall in love. The connections to the places where they actually do those things are often deeply personal, and so easily lost from whatever knowledge future generations might have of streets or buildings. A similar approach informed the ‘You Are My Watford’ book which might well be on your shelf.

2. With respect to those who partake, my co-editor included, statistics have never really done it for me. Memorabilia neither. I want those stories, memories, reminiscences. I want the bits between the lines; the litter and the limbs. We’ve all been on long car journeys to distant away games or in the pub after a few, when the laughter wraps around familiar tales in the same way that those tales wrap around results on a fixture list. Without disappearing too far up my own backside, part of what I love about what we achieved with BSaD, apart from making ourselves rich beyond our wildest dreams, is that it stands as a history of how that time felt, what it seemed to mean, where it led some of us. It’s one history, several histories; it’s nothing like a definitive history, whatever the hell that would look like. A community history, a folk memory.

I’ve recently been watching the highlights of some old seasons as research: Ray Lewington’s first for an article for The Watford Treasury and Malky Mackay’s second for a piece on Danny Graham for YBR. Some of the football played in the latter is remarkable, especially given where the club was at the time, but old footage never really comes to life until you start to remember your own personal experience of it. If you were there, I expect you can still picture your own view of our two goals at Wembley in ’99, regardless of how many times you’ve replayed the highlights from the camera gantry; it’s indelible. Some highlights of the game at London Road in ’94 cropped up on Twitter a while back; the football is proper nonsense, but the stories of what happened to people on that terrace are just glorious. I can still feel the sea breeze from that day at Brighton.

3. Which makes me wonder what this season and half of its predecessor will look like as they gradually recede into the distance. What will be their folk history, their collective memory? For the first time, we’ve experienced it all separately, alone or near enough. If we’ve gathered at all, it’s been on Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Zoom. In the past, even if you haven’t been to a game yourself, there have always been the stories of those who have, and yet those voices will have nothing much to say this time around.

It would be pushing a point to claim that there’s something therapeutic about experiencing relegation together, because the reality is very far from the kindness of a mutual support group, but it will be peculiar for that trauma not to have left more of a mark. It isn’t even as if most of us had to face the office afterwards. My mate Loz is still cross enough for the rest of us combined, mind you. As for this season, I’m reminded that most football grounds provided a very effective means of amplifying feelings of anger, resentment and betrayal long before social media was invented; I wonder what course the season would’ve taken with supporters present to let rip at the players with each minor setback.

And as things turned around, the resurgence would’ve been made vivid by communal experience. We’d never have heard the last of Adam Masina’s winner from those who’d travelled to Cardiff, and rightly so. We’d have found a song for Xisco, relished his smile. We’d be approaching this run of fixtures with the noise of the 1881, with flags waving, with that hum of nervous tension utterly distinct to these kind of occasions. We’d be trying to drag them over the line right now. Instead, I catch the team news – no changes – while Fred’s being put to bed, then scramble upstairs just in time for kickoff. I do have a flag to hand, as it happens, but I’m wary of breaking something. Instead, I eat the pud I’ve hidden from the cat while a minute’s silence is observed to mark the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing. The silence ends not with the traditional roar from all assembled but with more silence, broken by a few echoing claps and shouts. It’s all very strange.

4. For a while back there, I harboured a largely irrational dislike of Reading, the kind of simmering mean-spirited resentment which a tabloid newspaper might harness for a front page on a quiet day. Lots of people jumped on the bandwagon after the ghost goal, but I was there first. They cheated their way out of it by employing Nigel Gibbs, which made it impossible to hold a grudge.

More recently, they’ve occupied similar territory to the landfill indie bands which clutter up festival stages, when there are festivals and stages, in the late afternoon. I contend that there isn’t a single person in the entire world, not even if I include all of the members of the band, whose favourite band is Editors, and if you want to prove me wrong, then I suggest that yours will be a Pyrrhic victory, my friend. Similarly, there isn’t a single person in the entire world, even if I include the manager and all of the players, who really cares how Reading are getting on, and…well, ditto. (This kind of harmless trolling cheered up many a match preview and report back in the BSaD days, and we largely got away with it, apart from that time when Matt made a forum-full of Burnley fans really cross.)

If they carry on like this, though, they’re in danger of becoming relevant again. They’re simply terrific here, classy and exciting, open and ambitious. Brentford do something similar, but with the kind of preening narcissism which leads to everyone lining up across the halfway line at kickoff like some kind of modern dance piece; they’re a little bit too Lady Gaga for my taste, if you know what I mean. They also do it with a great deal of squealing and whining, as is often the way with teams who play football as it’s apparently supposed to be played. We get none of that from Reading, no bitter aftertaste at all. Just the good stuff.

In the behind-the-front three of Ejaria, Olise and Meite, they have players not merely comfortable on the ball but dynamic in possession; it lacks a real focal point, but teams like this are kinda supposed to lack a real focal point because you’re like not supposed to take it too literally, man. It’s a holistic experience, yeah? Part of me doesn’t want to wish them success in making and winning the playoffs because they’d be used as target practice by the posh kids with their laser-guided air rifles in the Premier League; lovely football with erratic finishing and a very open defence tends not to work out that well. Part of me is aware that their side will be picked clean in the summer regardless.

5. I’ve seen very little of this season, just dipped in occasionally. I’ll try not to be like your gran when she used to sit in the living room while your favourite programme was on and comment on people’s clothes. My occasional dips during the tenures of the previous two head coaches were much like when you turn on the telly and find yourself part-way through an episode of Eastenders: it’s just Phil Mitchell shouting at someone in the rain, forever. It felt as I saw the same Watford performance over and over again, and the last report I wrote involved football played with a level of enthusiasm which suggested it’d been demanded by someone holding relatives at gunpoint. You wouldn’t have guessed that anyone ever actually played the game for fun.

This is a total transformation, then. You may well have reservations; they may well be justified. Me, I see an entirely different energy: it’s as if the entire side has been given a glug of whatever Will Hughes was drinking at the end of last season, and he no longer stands out from the sullen crowd. Whatever Xisco’s tactical acumen, if you can get a set of players to attack a key fixture like this, with this intent and relish, you’re doing something very right. Some may contend that we were a little fortunate here, but I’d suggest that we were nothing – well, maybe not nothing but nearly nothing – of the sort. If you approach a game like we did that Bristol City one, your opponents have the better chances in a spirit-sapping nil-nil draw. If you approach a game like this, your opponents have the better chances in a vital two-nil win.

6. We made things happen. We didn’t ‘build a platform’ and wait for the creative players to do their thing; we were aggressive and proactive and we made things happen in the final third rather than waiting and wondering. The headlines rightly go to Ismaïla Sarr, but both goals came from pressing high up the pitch, wasps around jam sandwiches as Reading tried to play their way out. We’d already given them plenty of notice: Sarr was in behind the hapless Gibson within a couple of minutes, Cabral out to claim; João Pedro fired a cross shot wide shortly afterwards.

The goals were individual perfection and team masterpiece, both at once. For the first, Nathaniel Chalobah and Kiko Femenía are all over the scraps from a long clearance, turning classic Championship debris into controlled possession in an instant, setting up Sarr while the defence is still uncertain. For the second, within two minutes, Chalobah robs Gibson, perhaps yet to get his head back into the game, and Philip Zinckernagel plays the pass. In both cases, they’re situations we weren’t even interested in, let alone involved in, under previous managers; we were too busy getting our shape, tucking in, locking up. They come with risk, as we’ll see, but so much reward.

So much reward. My phone pings: people on the WhatsApp group watching on Sky, a few seconds ahead. Sarr sets off, cuts inside, curls a left-footed pearl into the top corner as if it’s just the training ground when everyone’s knocking off for the day. The keeper might as well not be there; maybe try to stop him with an extra outfield player instead. Two minutes later, there’s no ping from my phone, so I momentarily switch off as he cuts into the right of the area, goes on the outside of a defender, and then I’m off the sofa as he suddenly rips a shot into the very same top corner, the ball bouncing out of what momentarily appears to be a Subbuteo goal. It’s a ridiculous finish. He’s always played with the air of someone who doesn’t really care, not really, and that can cut both ways: you don’t finish like that without a certain arrogance about you, a certain carelessness.

But it would be remiss of me not to mention the work-rate. Not only of Sarr, but of João Pedro and Ken Sema too. The latter two hardly see anything of the ball, but Reading see plenty of them: we carry the energy of the midfield right through to the front three, and they play with a discipline, at least up to a point, which is to be applauded. João Pedro leaves one on an opponent late on to betray his frustration, and it’s foolish, and it’s a shame because he ought to know that we can still see his contribution even if it isn’t a glamorous one. Sema is exemplary: if you can’t get on the ball, contribute in other ways. Xisco has managed to make a team out of it all.

7. Obviously, the price of a high press is space further back. Much of the fun of the first half arose from the absurd amounts of unoccupied grass in midfield, the consequence of Reading being similar keen on winning the ball high up; the whole thing would’ve been utterly unrecognisable to anyone weaned on second tier football of days gone by, twenty blokes fighting over a muddy rectangle in the middle of the pitch. When I say ‘fun’, I do, of course, mean ‘not fun’, for it gradually became clear that the game was very far from over.

Just as at the other end, warnings had already been issued. Both Troost-Ekong and Sierralta had had cross-field passes ambushed like unescorted carriages after turning off the highway on a dark winter’s day; Laurent had shot at Bachmann from outside the box, afforded far too much time to do so. We lost possession again, Laurent dragged a cross-shot wide. Quite rightly, we see these as errors because that’s our perspective; Reading fans will no doubt see the hard work involved in forcing them, as we do for our goals. Olise breaks from deep, the already-booked Zinckernagel ill-advisedly hacking at his ankles as he sways through the midfield; Meite crosses, Puscas hits the post from six yards. A slight deflection on the cross from Masina’s last-ditch slide, perhaps, but a sitter nevertheless. Gary Porter and Nigel Gibbs – who, you’ll be aware, were both renowned for the ruthlessness of their close-range finishing – are suitably scathing at half-time.

That’s the key moment in the game, perhaps. If Zinckernagel makes contact, he’s off and we’re playing with ten men for the remaining hour. If Puscas scores, the contest is alive. We nearly kill it off, Sarr nonchalantly burying a magnificent cross from Masina only to have his hat-trick celebrations cut short by the linesman’s (correct) flag. But then Laurent is allowed to carry the ball again and Bachmann has to make a smothering save at his near post, and Meite should do better than hit the side netting after a loose pass from Troost-Ekong, and Bachmann saves again from Ejaria in injury time. By the break, all agree that Reading should be level. Deserving to be level isn’t the same as actually being level, though, and a whole season of having that written in very large letters on a blackboard while teacher sighs, shakes their head and taps the words with a stick awaits them if they’re promoted.

8. It’s been a cracking game so far. Really excellent entertainment, and I can’t remember when I last said that. I suppose the game at the Emirates back in whatever-month was really excellent entertainment if you had no active involvement in it. I suppose. Shudder. Anyway, we had no need of it continuing to be a cracking game; it served us no purpose. My second half notes barely amount to half a dozen lines, most of those inconsequential.

As the half began, Sierralta ran straight into traffic, disappearing like a toddler into a ball-pit, and whatever had been said in the dressing room briefly threatened to stay in the dressing room. But whether by accident, design or a bit of both, we came to completely dominate the game as it wore on. A large part of that is down to the half-time substitution of Nathaniel Chalobah, who’d taken a knock late in the half, for Carlos Sánchez. That’s no reflection on Chalobah, but this had become a game in need of a bloody good sort-out. Thus employed, Sánchez went about spring-cleaning the midfield with a brisk cheerfulness which suggested a pitch-side microphone might pick him up whistling a merry tune to himself at any moment. Cupboards were emptied and re-organised, floors swept and washed, nooks and crannies cleared of cobwebs.

Reading’s behind-the-front three, so dangerous before the break, received the ball without options in front of them, without space to come up with ideas, and gradually became a memory rather than a present threat. In response, they threw on whatever forwards they could find – you half-expected to see Adam le Fondre warming up – but they weren’t the same side without those breaks from midfield, without that merry-go-round of possession. It takes them ages to have another shot, and even then Bachmann has everything behind Olise’s free kick.

We broke it up, shut it down, hit them on the break. That really works when you’re two-nil up. Isaac Success and Andre Gray arrive, both ideal options for this kind of position; the luxury of a large, varied squad. Success immediately contests a long ball, Zinckernagel is through but finishes wildly. Sánchez, whistling all the while, whacks a shot a few yards wide. Sarr nearly grabs his third at a corner, the ball squirting around the post via a deflection. Bachmann has to make a decent stop from Aluko late on, but it’s over by then, pretty much.

9. Look, I loved this. Absolutely bloody loved it. It felt like fun, felt like it should do. That energy, that intensity, that unity. It felt positive. Hallelujah.

The Cup Final – yeah, sorry, that one – came up on Twitter during the week, and I still feel an enormous sense of pride whenever it does. And part of that pride comes from what happened at half-time, when we could’ve tried to shut the game down at two-nil, could’ve tried to limit the damage, could’ve saved face. Could’ve stuck.

But it was the Cup Final. If you’re not going to indulge fairytales when you’re at Wembley in May, then you don’t love what I love about football. All of Javi’s successors would’ve gone for damage limitation. All of them. (Yes, Ray Lewington too, I know. Stop interrupting.) But what’s the point of football, of cup finals, of Watford, if you can’t imagine a comeback against all odds, a comeback for the ages? So we pushed up, and we played the game as if we might still win it, and we got absolutely murdered. And I’m not merely fine with that. I love that. I’m deeply proud of it.

And I’ve missed it. And we’ve found it again, that belief in possibility, that refusal to be cowed. It isn’t about throwing caution to the wind. It’s about not letting caution stop you from opening the front door.

Perhaps this promotion, should there turn out to be one, wouldn’t quite have been of the High Street pond variety, but I had wondered what would be left of it in years to come other than a list of results and a league table. We might just wake up from a particularly vivid bad dream to find ourselves exactly where we were. A grey, insipid, nervous little team relegated; a grey, insipid, nervous little team promoted. A club caught between two divisions. A season without stories, memories, communal experience. Without real meaning.

But this, at last, is not that season. You probably already knew this, so I apologise for not hearing you. I’d wandered off and I hadn’t seen it until now. But, yes, hallelujah. We’ve got our courage back.

Feels great, doesn’t it?



Bachmann 4, Femenía 4, Troost-Ekong 3, Sierralta 3, Masina 4, Hughes 4, Chalobah 3, Zinckernagel 3, *Sarr 5*, João Pedro 3, Sema 3
Subs: Sánchez (for Chalobah, 45) 5, Cathcart (for Troost-Ekong, 70) 4, Success (for Sema, 77) 3, Gray (for João Pedro, 77) 3, Foster, Ngakia, Gosling, Lazaar, Hungbo