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Chelsea 3 Watford 0 (05/05/2019) 06/05/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
9 comments

1- This is going to sound absurd… but I’m beginning to wonder whether a lifetime’s worth of accumulated superstition has really got very much going for it.

I know, I know.  I’ve been turning the rational arguments over and over inside my head…  “It would have been so much worse if I hadn’t…” and so forth.  And logic dictates that this must true.  Nonetheless…  when a day’s dutiful parentage on Saturday in deliberate avoidance of football scores is rewarded by watching Wolves and bloody West Ham win on Match of the Day in an abandoned, darkened living room at midnight.  When the carefully measured decision to walk from Blackfriars to Stamford Bridge on the south bank of the Thames for the most part (the north bank walk having been unrewarded by our FA Cup defeat four years ago) is met with such a disappointing outcome.  Ditto lucky hornet socks, lucky Pretenders t-shirt.

When lucky half-time lucky chocolate, that most dependable of precautions, is rewarded by an unheralded burst of both energy and goals from our hosts at the onset of the second half…  well.  You have to begin to wonder how much influence one has on the outcome of a football match after all.

I’m sure I’ll regain some perspective by next week.

2- To be fair, and as was reflected by a venerable Chelsea panel in the tube afterwards, we started the game as unlike a side preoccupied with the Cup Final as it’s possible to imagine.  We were lively, assertive and direct, pinning the home side back with some verve and energy.

Troy helps, of course.  Troy always helps.  Pre-match speculation considered the possibility that he’d been kept in a cage for a fortnight, fed on raw meat and forced to ponder the consequences of his reckless if harshly punished forearm swing.  Either he was going to pummel Chelsea’s threadbare defence into the ground or get himself sent off (again).

Actually he did neither, but this was still a dominant 45 minutes for the centre forward.  The first chance, his flick on to Deulofeu who drove wide, was painfully easy against a flabby, dozy Chelsea and he had the beating of Christensen in the air for most of the game and certainly the half.  The footnote, as ever, is that we didn’t capitalise on our early superiority, as you’ll have noticed… a recurring theme against the top sides.  Set aside that spanking at Anfield and the win over Spurs and you have ten games (ten!) that to varying degrees has seen us compete in a close game that we’ve lost anyway.  Certainly Stamford Bridge regulars will have enjoyed our visits in recent years… everybody likes a plucky loser, this the third game on the trot here that we’ve worn that mantle.

Troy’s best attempt was the closest we came to altering that narrative, a short corner routine working the ball back to the lurking Holebas, whose near-post missile found Deeney’s forehead.  It wasn’t just top corner it was past the goalkeeper, until he athletically clawed it onto the post by, unconventionally, reaching up to it with his “furthest” left arm from underneath it.  A fine stop.

3- Meanwhile, Nathaniel Chalobah has finally engineered a start and fittingly it’s at Stamford Bridge whose denizens greet him almost as appreciatively as we do and applaud him off on his substitution an hour or so later (but see “plucky loser” note above).  It’s easy to forget that the Doucouré/Chalobah midfield partnership was the foundation of our fine start under Marco Silva last season (Caps managed only half an hour off the bench before Nate’s knee injury) and here, finally, it was resurrected.

And not quite to the same devastating effect.  Nate is more than adequate on the ball… tidy, efficient, and with an ability to take a touch and launch a quick and wrong-footing pass that only he had spotted that is unparalleled in our squad.  Off the ball however…  Capoue is a daunting benchmark to measure him against, but too often he was found chasing an escaping opponent as the home side gradually came into the match in the last fifteen minutes of the half.  Marco Silva’s early midfield had the ferreting Tom Cleverley at its apex too of course; Nate’s been out a while but the pairing looked less robust than we have of late.

Chelsea had provided threat on the break earlier in the half.  Mapps capped a strong 45 minutes with a sturdy challenge to deny the rotund Argentine, his near-post block even denying a corner.  As the home side asserted more control it was Ruben Loftus-Cheek, an early sub for the injured Kanté, who drove them on but although your heart was in your mouth whenever Hazard picked the ball up we were largely comfortable.  Only Pedro’s late sledgehammer of a shot caused palpitations;  we were buoyant at half-time after good halves from the bubbly Hughes and the assertive Femenía in particular.

4- I tempted fate at the break by tweeting about how much fun we were all having.  Five minutes in and we weren’t having fun at all;  a visibly more energised, vigorous Chelsea side engineered a couple of set pieces and suddenly the game was disappearing over the horizon.  So unwarranted and so frustrating.  Unwarranted… not because you don’t deserve to concede goals when you don’t pick people up at set pieces but more because this miserably indolent Chelsea side and similarly dozy support had done so little to earn it whilst our best efforts went unrewarded.  No, I know that’s not how it works.

Again, there’s an angle which says “so we binned it.  At 2-0 down we shrugged and let our minds drift forward a couple of weeks”.  I didn’t see that. No lack of effort anyway, no lack of commitment on or off the pitch; a couple of minutes of sulking and we were back at it.  Certainly Abdoulaye Doucouré has had better games, games that didn’t involve him being quite so slack with possession.  Certainly Will Hughes was less impactful in the second half than the first; that’s a recurring theme though, one that pre-dates the semi final and that doesn’t generally include a running spat with Marcos Alonso that a lesser referee than the excellent and unfussy Tierney might have penalised.

But no lack of effort.  Just effectiveness.  And frankly nothing we didn’t already know here… our midfield, shorn of its most effective component, still looks excellent, our full backs are tremendous, our attacking play has lots of nice things going for it but a clinical touch isn’t one of them… Deulofeu shoots narrowly wide, Jose Holebas bundles across the area before slugging over with his weaker right foot.  And certainly we could do with strengthening at centre half, where the dependable Craig Cathcart is suddenly less so for the first time this season;  giving Higuain the half-hour’s head start required to get beyond you takes some doing, his finish was exemplary and then, yes, our heads did drop.  When the mercurial Pereyra slung a cross in only for our own man to block it inadvertently on the line and subs Success and Gray contrive to get an offside call out of turning in the rebound, you knew it wasn’t our day.

5- I’m minded to think back to Sven-Göran Eriksson’s World Cup campaigns in 2002 and 2006.  Not that, in the grand scheme of things I cared all that much… I mean, give me the choice between an England World Cup win and the consequent witless nationalistic outpouring and, you know, Watford winning a throw-in in a pre-season friendly and the throw-in is in strong contention.

Nonetheless.  Both campaigns saw England knocked out in the quarter finals and thus having come somewhere between fifth and eighth in the World, and both were presented and reported as failures, at least in the immediate aftermath.  Patently nonsense.  Patently grotesequely oversimplified nonsense, as if there really is nothing but winning and (anything less than winning equals) losing.  Quarter Final defeat was not what had been hoped from a strong squad but it was no worse than par.

The same is true here.  It was already clear before today that we weren’t going to finish seventh, but seventh was merely the peak of our ambitions in the League this season and not making it doesn’t make it a failure.  Even ignoring that May 18th thing, mid-table in the Premier League and all the fun we’ve had on the way isn’t a bad place to be.

Which doesn’t mean it’s enough.  Doesn’t mean we’re bashfully appreciating our seat at the big table, still grateful for the crumbs being thrown our way. But there’s space for recognising progress.  After all, to get too het up about losing seventh place, let alone losing to Chelsea, would suggest that we believed that this was an isolated opportunity.  That our club’s presence in the top half all season is as anomalous and inexplicable as much of those commenting with their fingers up their backsides believe it to be.

That the club isn’t being run by people who will continue to build and nurture it along its current trajectory.

Ha.

Yooorns.

Foster 3, *Femenía 4*, Holebas 3, Cathcart 2, Mariappa 3, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Chalobah 3, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Cleverley (for Chalobah, 67) 2, Gray (for Deeney, 83) 0, Success (for Deulofeu, 83) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Masina, Gomes

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Watford 1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 (27/04/2019) 28/04/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
30 comments

1- Probably best to start off by stating what should be obvious.  There is absolutely no justification in being anything but delighted with this season.   With the unflinching trajectory of the club, league position, cup final, stadium, team, head coach, and so on.  None at all.

Nonetheless.  Me writing this report is the equivalent of Charlie Austin being interviewed at the end of the game at St Mary’s earlier in the season, presumably when his press officer had nipped to the loo or something.  I could really do with a day or so to get things into perspective such that I could put some feeling into the words above, say them with my heart as well as my head.  Thing is, if I don’t write it now this one’s going to go the same way as the abandoned Huddersfield report, such is life unfortunately.

(Seeing as we lost, based on previous evidence, none of you buggers are going to be reading this anyway so it doesn’t much matter what I write I guess.  I could wander off into any number of alternative topics and see whether anyone notices.  I’ve got a new patio, how’s that?  And I’m watching Quicksand on Netflix which is great, and reading a book on the History of Germany which is better. No?)

Suffice to say I’m pissed off.  I know it’s not fair or balanced, but I’m in a sulk.  And only partly because of the knowledge that having wondered, at 2-0 down at Wembley, how my co-editor always manages to dodge the miserable ones in allocation of blogging duties.  A legendary finish (mine) and two underwhelming home games later (his), there was something karmic about this one.

2- Not that it was unexpected, in all honesty.  A more limited team than Wolves exposed our lack of a target man on Tuesday night to good effect, today was hardly going to be any different.  Amidst all the pondering about Which Team Is Equipped For Europe (media consensus: Not Watford, obviously), the fact that we have excellent cover throughout most of the side whilst Wolves have fielded the same eleven for much of the season has been missed.

Nonetheless, the player we could least afford to lose for, effectively, four games was Troy.  He’s the one.  Not the best player in the side, perhaps, but the one we are least equipped to cope without.  It was harsh, yes, the red card.  He made it possible too, undoubtedly.  Equally beyond doubt that, like Ben Foster and Craig Cathcart he’s well, well in credit.  “People who do things make mistakes”.  We’ve paid heavily for this one…  at least three points across the four games by any reasonable reckoning.

So, the welcome return of the mad Greek bastard at left back notwithstanding, there was a sense of trepidation before kick off as the vicious wind whipped around the stadium, holding up the flags and threatening to carry Daughter Two away.  We should have had the psychological edge of course… after all, we won the bloody semi final, not to mention that fine victory at Molineux earlier in the season.  Three of our five goals against Wolves before today made it into the twice-repeated reel of Goal of the Season contenders… the fourth would have been my choice, given the option.

But from the moment that a Wolves fan on Vicarage Road turned his back on the ground pre-game, stuck his arms in the air, raised his head to the skies and bellowed “Two-nil, and we f***ed it oop!” the boot was on the other foot.

And that’s before we even get to the lack of Z-cars…

3- The line being drawn between the dismissal of Z-cars as the run-out tune and our subsequent run of one point from three home games is clearly a nonsense.  Nonetheless, and irrespective of whether for you, individually,  Z-cars is a bizarre anachronism whose removal is either overdue or an irrelevance, or something that matters deeply, something that is evocative of matchday and that subconsciously sets your spine tingling, the decision to switch it now, at this stage, was a particularly witless one.

As the teams run out you want to rouse the crowd.  What you don’t want is grown men gently booing at each other, albeit with smiles on their faces, or expletives peppering the applause.  It doesn’t need to piss everyone off to be disruptive.  For those who miss it, it kicks off the game with resentment and negativity.  Not the way to inspire noisy support at a critical time of the season.

Football?  Oh, OK then.

3- It’s a very even, competitive game throughout and played to a very high standard albeit one we’ve gotten used to.  There’s a certain caginess about the first half in particular… certainly no suggestion that we’re going to pile forward and invite Wolves to counter-attack, as is their wont.  Wolves, in fact, have more possession early on but we have perhaps the best chance as Deulofeu scampers through but declines to shoot on his weaker foot and the chance goes.

The swirling wind is making life interesting at both ends;  Andre Gray does a better job of holding the ball up, opting for flick-ons and spins rather than taking on the monstrous Boly in a physical battle, whilst Mariappa marshalls our own dogged and disciplined backline.

Clear chances, shots on goal, are few and far between.  It really isn’t that sort of game at all.  Boistrous and engaging yes.  Thrill a minute, no.  Not until half an hour in was there a serious goalscoring chance, Jiménez coming close to scoring but for an insane goalline clearance from the peerless Capoue, who stomped all over the midfield for much of the game.  Rúben Neves chased referee Simon Hooper back up the pitch in remonstration and should probably have been booked for sheer stupidity.

But eventually Wolves did get the lead, and in common with the other two goals in the game it was essentially a cock-up, Pereyra failing to adequately contest a ball on the edge of the box, Jota capitalising and Jiménez tucking home.  As on Tuesday Andre Gray had the chance to equalise almost immediately and again he didn’t take it, a great first touch seeming to take him clear before he lashed a hurried shot wide when he appeared to have time to take it in on goal.  Half time, grumbling.  The girls are both exhausted and miserable.

4- So the gift at the start of the second half was most welcome.  There’s something to be read into the fact that so many were still in the bowels of the stand and missed it, both daughters included…  one minute Wolves are knocking it airily around the back line, the next Gerard Deulofeu is being presented with a red carpet to goal.  He doesn’t quite capitalise, but he does enough… Andre Gray tucks in the rebound to the Spaniard’s blocked shot.

And for a while it was all a lot of fun. Like when you were at school and a disciplinarian teacher nips off to the staff room to pick up something he’s forgotten and the class runs riot in his absence, here both sides suddenly abandoned the shackles and went for each other.  This should have suited Wolves of course, this is What They Do…. but actually we looked more of a threat on the counter than the visitors did.  For all their defensive organisation they really don’t like being run at, and we did plenty of that;  twice we had shouts for a penalty kick, the first of which provoking particularly animated protests from Will Hughes and Deulofeu after the former went down on the edge of the box.  Difficult to see from our angle.

So it felt as if fate had been kind to us.  Given us a break, and we were making the most of it.  A more open game, yes, and we were far from all over them, of course but… the better side.  In the ascendency.  In spite of grim portents and a limited first half, seventh placed was looming back into view.

5- Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes.  Heaven knows Javi has proven his mettle with tactical surgery countless times this season.  But on any level this change was odd…   removing the energetic Hughes to bring in an extra centre back.  A conservative move, aimed at making us more solid and matching up Wolves’ formation but…  given that we were on top, an odd choice leaving Gracia open to criticism, particularly as it was followed so closely by the decisive goal.  Perhaps it played no part, perhaps the fact that Jota was afforded so much space to apply a finish after Foster flapped at Neves’ fine deep cross was nothing to do with altered formations but the wheels had visibly spun off in the brief period between the sub and the goal.  We were suddenly losing control of a game that we had previously been more than competing in.

6- A second change followed, changing the formation again.  I’ve since read suggestions that Cathcart limped off – self-evidently we could do without that.  Either way we went back to a flat back four, (or three, since Christian Kabasele spent the brief kitchen-sinky bit as a surrogate centre forward).  It never looked like happening.

As an aside, one has to ponder on the future of both Isaac Success and Nathaniel Chalobah.  The former stuffed up possession immediately after his introduction and vanished thereafter, bereft of confidence;  I would have had him front and centre rather than wide having helped turn the tide from that position after another late introduction on Tuesday simply by virtue of knocking people over.  As for Chalobah… fitness questions or no he’s not only fallen behind both Cleverley and Quina, he’s not being seen as an option when he’s on the bench and we need something, his propensity for a quick clever pass not trusted.  This strikes me as a crying shame.

7- So… from a position where seventh was in our control we are now needing snookers, and dropping into the bottom half at the expense of West Ham a likelier outcome, another crying shame.  Fortunately Javi’s post-match reflections were defiant enough to suggest that we’re not binning off the rest of the League programme just yet.  Hurrah, and so forth.  I’ll be bloody-minded and positive again by the time Stamford Bridge comes around. Promise.

As for Z-cars…  well it does matter to me, as you’ve probably gathered.  I’m in that camp.  Because… whilst it obviously matters far less than, you know, us actually being good at football I almost feel I could cope without the latter to a greater extent?  Because… the ups and downs are kind of how it’s always been and much as I love us being great, love us being as great as we are, I know I can cope with us being a bit shit too because we’ve all been there.  I don’t wish it, far from it, and I know that just like Troy and Ben and Craig the club are well in credit and have done lots more right than wrong…  but Z Cars is part of the pillar that’s a constant.  The pillar that I lean and rely on, as so many of us do.  So it feels more permanent and painful when it’s taken away.

So I’ll close with a picture that sums up another part of that constant pillar.  It would, should have been a cornerstone of that Huddersfield report but, you know, stuff happens.

See you at Chelsea.  Yoooorns.

 

Foster 2, Femenía 3, Holebas 3, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 3, Hughes 3, *Capoue 5*, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 3, Deulofeu 3, Gray 3
Subs: Kabasele (for Hughes, 74) 2, Success (for Cathcart, 82) 0, Janmaat, Sema, Chalobah, Masina, Gomes

Watford 1 Southampton 1 (23/04/2019) 24/04/2019

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
17 comments

0. Look, we might as well be up front about it: this isn’t going to be nearly as much fun as the Arsenal report. If you want to go and read that again instead of sticking around here, I won’t blame you. Might even join you in a while. The problem with Arsenal is that they make everything else seem a bit less worthy of scorn; it becomes that much more difficult to be disdainful about other things and really mean it. (And I’m still writing about them now, you see. And that’s essentially because writing about them makes me happy in a way that, with all due deference, writing about Southampton never will. And writing about this game definitely won’t.)

1. Southampton were a thing a while back, if you recall. It’s tempting – because, hey, I’m trying, even though it’s gone midnight and there’s a really bloody irritating metallic rattle on this train carriage – to come up with some kind of mid-life crisis metaphor for their recent dalliances, for the series of bad-tempered implosions that’ve taken them from being Other Cup finalists to relegation strugglers. Except that a mid-life crisis usually involves wildness and impulse and a quest for lost youth, whereas Southampton rather went about it the other way, selling their collection of sports cars and investing in a series of grey second-hand hatchbacks, including one with rather a lot of miles on the clock and a really annoying whining noise when it goes round corners. Succession planning is so vital these days; the time when lining up a manager’s replacement was considered to be poor form has long gone. We can’t claim to have got it right every time ourselves, of course, but…Mark Hughes. I mean…Mark Hughes. You know? Mark Hughes.

It’s quite nice to see them vaguely enjoying themselves again, if I’m honest. Up to a point, anyway. Kindred spirits are pretty hard to find in the Premier League. It’s like one of those networking events where you scan the room desperately looking for a friendly face; you know that Burnley are going to be there and you don’t want to get stuck listening to them grumbling all evening. You know that someone’s going to mistake you for Bournemouth too. Again. And that Everton are going to steal your nice new coat if you don’t keep an eye on it. You can fill in the rest of the metaphor yourselves, if you wish. There’ll be a prize for the best one. (There won’t.)

It’d be pushing the point to claim any great likeness with Southampton, for our underlying approaches are very different, and our histories too, but you’d be happy enough to chat with them over a mushroom vol-au-vent if you had to. It’s hard to wish them significant ill, which is a rare quality among our competitors. They do their level best to change that situation over the course of this particular evening, but I’m a forgiving sort and I’ll let it go.

2. I spent Monday afternoon in a crowd of eight hundred or so watching Hastings take on Ashford. Third versus fourth, four goals, one red card, an outfield player in goal, a street drumming troupe, a large and rowdy away contingent with a lot of inflatables, and a five-year-old with a grievance to air about the length of the queue for chips. For a while, Ashford attacked a goal with an inflatable, um, lady perched atop its netting. It was fun, in that way Hastings has of suggesting that things might tip over into total anarchy without very much of a nudge. Vicarage Road seems rather ordered and genteel by comparison, especially as there’s barely anyone here with ten minutes to go. It gradually fills up. Everyone needs to get a move on, though, as there’s about to be a….

3. Goal. Southampton arrive having done that annoying thing of being absolute bobbins only three days ago, thereby making us the object of their “reaction”. Even they can’t have dreamt of being gifted the opener within eight seconds, Craig Cathcart too slow to control and clear the ball, Shane Long smothering, racing clear and lifting a nonchalant finish into the top corner.

There isn’t anything else to say about it. There’s nothing to analyse, no context to place it in. We find ourselves in the novel position of being a goal down without having played any football. The game remains a blank canvas. The needle has still to hit the record. The fat lady’s alarm clock hasn’t even gone off. We haven’t even put in planning permission for the stable, let alone built it, let alone put a horse in it, let alone…oh, you get the idea.

There’s the usual grumbling and grousing, of course, but we haven’t yet found out how we’re actually playing, that’s my point. We kick off again, and were it not for the jubilant away section, you might easily believe that you’d imagined the whole thing.

(And no, it isn’t a bloody record. Not a proper one, anyway. Football didn’t start in 1992. And yes, I would still be saying that if we’d scored it.)

4. For ten minutes or so, we react exactly as you’d hope. We get the ball down, seek a rhythm, pretend that it’s still goalless. We have, after all, still got eighty-nine minutes and fifty-two seconds to get ourselves level and beyond. It’s true that we’ll spend about a third of that watching Southampton fannying about over throw-ins and goal kicks, but even so, no reason to panic just yet.

We ought to be level almost immediately, as Will Hughes’ cross finds Andre Gray; his finish is unconvincing, though, and Gunn is able to save. The next step up, should we make it, involves those kind of chances going in on a more regular basis: for all our failings here, we’d have won this with more ruthless finishing. Undeservedly so, of course, but the league table doesn’t care about that. It’s like a money box; it’ll accept other kids’ lunch money without judgement. Gerard Deulofeu curls narrowly wide from the left of the area. We’re doing fine. It’ll come.

5. It doesn’t come. Gradually, steadily, we stop doing fine. It becomes Southampton’s game, one in which they sit deep and invite us to choose between playing through a clogged midfield or lobbing it long to the ghost of Troy Deeney, and then hit us on the break when whichever of those options we pick inevitably and repeatedly fails. They look a very capable side, well-organised and punchy; Ralph Hasenhüttl has them in far better shape than their league position suggests, even if he does look like someone who’d try to get a bit too familiar with your wife on a skiing holiday. (I’ve never been on a skiing holiday, but I know what goes on.)

We disintegrate somewhat. And then we disintegrate some more. Long heads wide, then Long heads over, then Ben Foster makes a full-stretch save to push away a Redmond cross-shot; those two are a menace, quick and direct, and we can’t contain them, especially on the left side of our back four where Masina and Cathcart suddenly look like giraffes on rollerskates. Masina gets the wrong side of Long and when the ball comes across to Redmond, he’s herded wide by Foster and hits the outside of the post. The same bit of woodwork is struck again by Bertrand shortly afterwards after we’re undone on that side once more, and a half that began with a bit of a mishap has really been allowed to get completely out of hand. Abdoulaye Doucouré gets beaten on the wing and simply hacks his man down.

Deulofeu twists, turns and drives narrowly wide, but the sight of Deeney making his way around the touchline towards the dressing room speaks volumes; it isn’t his leadership we lack, in truth, but his sheer physical presence. Or both. It’s probably both. Whatever, Southampton are increasingly comfortable.

6. Javi Gracia acts at half-time, matching the visitors by switching to a back three via the withdrawal of Cathcart. To be more accurate, it’s a back one: Christian Kabasele plus whoever happens to be around to help out. The result is that so many players end up ‘taking one for the team’ that it’s quite hard to keep track of whether there’s anyone left who can do a shift rugby-tackling a Southampton forward. Mike Dean doesn’t struggle to thrust himself into the spotlight, put it that way. It isn’t pretty. It’s just about effective, though, in keeping us in the contest in spite of increasing numbers being committed forward. For all the threat of a break, Foster is only called into action once, beating away a Ward-Prowse free kick.

The obvious lack of a target man remains, and impatience grows at the reluctance to introduce Isaac Success. We’re forced into the long ball much more than we’d like, with predictably indifferent results; Andre Gray is not involved at all for long periods, Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu run into dead-ends in positions too deep to be truly threatening. Southampton are on the defensive, unquestionably. Equally unquestionably, though, they remain comfortable. The difficulty is that no amount of squeezing our eyes tight shut and wishing really hard will turn Isaac Success into an effective line-leader. The substitution ought to be a no-brainer, given the pattern of the game. But it isn’t. It’s a brainer. Unwilling to sacrifice a player who’s actively involved, we wait. And we wait.

7. But sometimes, it isn’t really about what you do. Sometimes, it’s just about being there. When the substitution is finally made, Success wins little, does little. But he’s there, and the shift in gravity is subtle but tangible. We are dragged forward, Southampton are pushed further back. The ball begins to fall to Pereyra and Deulofeu in areas that spark their interest a little more. And Southampton are suddenly a little less comfortable.

And through all of this, we’ve kept our heads. We haven’t played very well. Haven’t played very well at all, lacking both fluency and intensity in comparison with our opponents. (I don’t want to get carried away here, for I’ve seen a lot worse, against a lot worse.) But we’ve stayed in the contest, just about. We’re still at the races, even if we’ve spent much of the time in the queue for the toilets. We’ve avoided turning this into the game in which we’re buried on the break; we’ve avoided turning it into the one in which we’re down to ten men too.

We waste what appears to be a key chance, Pereyra scuffing a feeble shot at the keeper with a couple of minutes left. That looked like it was the moment, gone. But then the ball drops to Andre Gray and he squeezes it into the top corner past Gunn and we have ourselves a very valuable point. Not one that you’d want to look upon with any great pride, but still. With one last effort, we avoid turning this into the game where we concede another in injury time and lose anyway.

8. It’s a funny old night, really. Funny old game, funny old night. The celebration of the imminent Elton John biopic is rather awkward and misjudged, at least in parts. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of half-time nonsense, especially with John Barnes involved and some season tickets up for grabs. It isn’t my cup of tea, but we all find our fun in different ways and we often find other people’s fun a bit cringeworthy.

The pre-match banner, though, makes me recoil. It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway: what the 1881, with the club’s support, have achieved is nothing short of staggering. The atmosphere at Vicarage Road is transformed, springing from a source of genuine positivity even when things aren’t going to plan; we should take our hats off to everyone involved in making that happen. It also goes without saying that we are in eternal debt to Elton John. And last on the list of disclaimers: it also goes without saying that there are countless reasons to applaud those currently running the club.

But the Rookery is not an advertising hoarding for hire; it isn’t a giant projection screen. Something was lost last night, and it was the sense of something being built from the ground up, of a community expressing itself. We’re here because we’re Watford fans; that’s what binds us together, it’s what divides us sometimes too. Nothing else.

It isn’t like Elton needs our help with something that he’s cobbled together himself and posted up on Bandcamp. Paramount Studios are not a DIY punk collective. Let’s not kid ourselves: this is a corporate promotion campaign.

So, no. Perhaps it all comes from good intentions, but…no.

And we’ll have Z-Cars back too, please.

*Foster 4*, Masina 2, Cathcart 2, Kabasele 3, Janmaat 3, Doucouré 2, Hughes 3, Capoue 3, Pereyra 2, Deulofeu 3, Gray 2
Subs: Femenia (for Cathcart, 45) 3, Success (for Hughes, 77) 3, Gomes, Britos, Mariappa, Sema, Chalobah

Watford 0 Arsenal 1 (15/04/2019) 16/04/2019

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
15 comments

1. I spent most of my student years experimenting with being a bit of a twat, as you do. Small-time stuff, no pigs’ heads. A great deal of drinking, ridiculous clothes, long hair, bad poetry, questionable personal hygiene, all very much part of the curriculum. That really toxic combination of brittle arrogance and piercing insecurity which tends to define those years.

I built much of my new life around pompous and outlandish opinions on music, only some of which I’ve since abandoned. At one point following a particularly vital evening, I remember declaring The End Of Music and entering into a kind of monastic silence, if monastic silences involved not listening to your Fall tapes for a week or so. I’m pretty certain that the cause of The End Of Music was a Heresy gig at the Fulham Greyhound, so perhaps not, with hindsight, my generation’s equivalent of the Beatles at Shea Stadium. (That said, my nineteen-year-old self absolutely insists that I point out, preferably at length, how great Heresy were in their prime. And he’s right, they really were. But we shouldn’t indulge him here: he needs to get a hair cut, a bath and a girlfriend.)

2. While it’s true that nobody has gone so far as to compare it to Heresy at the Greyhound in nineteen-eighty-whatever, our trip to Wembley last weekend was nonetheless momentous. It certainly felt like The End Of Football, even if the whole point was actually more football, another date on the end of the fixture list. A league fixture, even against Arsenal, even with the prospect of European football, seems curiously carefree after all that. Everyone’s smiling. Who could’ve imagined that watching a football match while actually breathing could seem such a pleasure.

Much is often made of teams having nothing to play for as the season winds up. A bit too much, I think. For every team that dials down the intensity – and we’ve been no strangers to the beach ourselves, obviously – there’s another that benefits from a release of pressure. There’s a sense in which victory over Wolves has made us untouchable, and yet little sense that we’ll be content to rest on our laurels from now until the final. (I’m going to type that again, just because I can: From Now Until The Final.) Places at stake, of course, but more than that: this is a team which has discovered how far hard work, with a scattering of pixie dust, can actually take you.

The majority of Graham Taylor’s most successful players, of either era, experienced the pinnacles of their careers at Watford. We all did it together, but they bought into it, at least partly, because it was a passport out of the lower divisions. That isn’t the case this time around. The real triumph of this season has been to reconnect the modern reality of the Premier League with a basic idea of Watford Football Club, of what it is in our heads and hearts, of what it once was in Graham Taylor’s imagination. It’s true that times have changed, and we’re not going to bump into Etienne Capoue in Our Price. But it feels as if this is a group of players which understands – or has been made to understand, whatever – why this football club actually matters. (A small part of why it matters is Z-Cars, incidentally. Hands off.)

3. Arsenal feel like the perfect opponents for this moment. They have, after all, won the FA Cup so often (and everything else so rarely) that they’ve grown sick of it, gorged and listless. We’ve often lived in their shadow, but that doesn’t feel like it’s the case any more; what would they understand of our joy? They sit and grumble in a puddle of their own effluence, as bored by their own irrelevant power as Boris Johnson stranded on a desert island. They’re the neighbours with the fancy cars, the expensive jewellery, the barely disguised sneers, and the bitter, piercing rows as soon as the front door closes, muffled but audible through the bespoke double-glazing. We’re separated by four places, seventeen points…and one f***ing huge sense of entitlement.

Money does not buy you happiness. It’s a great time to play Arsenal.

4. Our visitors appear not to have bothered preparing at all for what awaits them. Apart from a team selection that rests a few tired and injured legs, it isn’t as if we’ve got anything much up our sleeves; Troy Deeney is many things, but a master of subterfuge ain’t one of them. Arsenal ought to know what’s coming. If they do, it doesn’t show.

They win the toss and opt to switch ends, then spend the opening ten minutes systematically losing every single battle from the moment when Andre Gray chases down a backpass. Troy Deeney wins every header, Will Hughes and Etienne Capoue thrash around the midfield, Abdoulaye Doucouré crests the waves they create, the ball barely crosses the halfway line. The only resistance appears to be a rather desperate insistence that any contact requires the referee’s intervention, effectively an admission that nobody much fancies any of the physical stuff. Torreira enrages Deeney by taking a tumble when cornered, of which more shortly. Nobody fancies it at all.

Arsenal are there for the taking. They’re made of butter. They’re as limp as their lettuce-coloured away kit. (Yes, I know. I was pleased with that.)

I mean, it isn’t even as if we’ve got José Holebas on the pitch. Guys, you really should meet José. You’ll love him. Maybe next season, yeah?

5. The scoreline speaks for itself, of course. It’s all that anyone will remember in years to come. We’ve only ourselves to blame, quite clearly, as Ben Foster dallies over a clearance and is caught in possession by Aubameyang for the only goal. You still rather rated our chances at that point, but Troy Deeney’s dismissal for leaving a little retributory something on Torreira a minute later changed that. No need to give the referee any kind of decision to make. No need at all. I mean, I love Troy, we all love Troy, but he’s a doughnut sometimes. And suddenly – well, not that suddenly, given how long it takes Troy to depart – we’re a goal and a man down, and it’s all over.

6. Except it isn’t. It ought to be, but it isn’t. For a while, everyone takes stock: we regroup while Arsenal pass the ball around at such a pedestrian pace that you wonder if they might be trying to bore us into submission. You know how this ends, with a valiant but doomed three-nil defeat, and a lingering taste of what might’ve been.

And then as they conclude one of their interminable pass-and-move exercises by carefully stroking a sideways ball straight to Etienne Capoue who hares away on a break, we realise that even if we are a goal and a man down, one crucial thing hasn’t changed: Arsenal are still absolutely terrible. We have nothing to fear. Craig Cathcart blasts a drive that’s blocked by Leno at his near post; Capoue’s arcing free kick is turned around by a last-ditch out-stretched hand. There’s a penalty appeal. You wouldn’t be foolish enough to claim that we’re in the ascendancy, for there are long spells when we have to sit in and wait. Foster pushes a shot from Iwobi over the bar. But we’re on our feet, we’re raising our voices, and it isn’t over. We’re too hungry, too urgent, and Arsenal too meek, for it to be over.

7. A serious point, as an aside. If we continue to allow the game to move inexorably away from accepting contact as part of the contest – and VAR will accelerate that process very rapidly indeed – we will find that teams like Arsenal are all that’s left. The gulf that already exists will widen, and we will all have to stand around and watch the show ponies perform their dressage routines.

8. The second half is, in its own way, completely extraordinary. We’re prevented from touching the ball for about five minutes, presumably in the hope that we might learn to behave if our toys are taken away. All of this comes with a dismissive arrogance that might be impressive if it were allied with the merest hint of a work ethic. It still feels as if there’ll be a decisive moment at some stage, something to end it as a contest. But Arsenal don’t do decisive moments, and prove the point by lazily wasting the few chances that they do create, Mkhitaryan getting further and further away with a series of wild attempts. Balls whistle through the six yard box, Foster makes a fine stop to deny Mkhitaryan from close range.

9. I should, of course, be giving us more credit in all of this. We’re magnificent, particularly defensively. And defensively means everyone, really. Craig Cathcart has one of those games in which the ball appears magnetically drawn to his boot, clearing threats time and again; Christian Kabasele alongside is quieter but equally unyielding. Daryl Janmaat runs himself into the ground, frequently gasping for breath before rousing himself and the crowd again. Adam Masina takes a huge step up, powerful and lean and pacy. Will Hughes and Etienne Capoue are still thrashing around the midfield, Abdoulaye Doucouré still surfing their waves, Kiko Femenia tucking in and putting in a shift.

We change it, and Javi Gracia is again as bold and as positive as his team have become. Isaac Success on for Femenia, and the whole game instantly moves ten or fifteen yards away from Ben Foster’s goal. And Masina, not closed down because Arsenal can’t be arsed, sends in a screamer which clips the top of the bar. And it’s on, again. Ridiculous that we’re still in this, but it’s on. I must confess that the hilarity of it all rather gets the better of me as the first of Arsenal’s substitutes shuffles slowly off, eking out every tedious second. One of the world’s richest clubs, a goal and a man up, wasting time to hang onto their lead. They stop short of taking it to the corner flag at the end, but only just. Only just.

We can’t find the goal that our efforts deserve. The goal that the game deserves, that Arsenal deserve. Andre Gray twice fluffs his lines, control which isn’t crisp enough to allow him to pick a finish. Will Hughes heads over. Free kicks are wasted, perhaps the only real criticism. Aubemayang scuffs wide when through under challenge from, inevitably, Craig Cathcart. We lose. We win every single fifty-fifty challenge across the whole ninety minutes, we’re first to every loose ball, we’re quicker and stronger and more determined in every match-up, we make our opponents shrink and cower and whine, but we lose.

10. Me, I loved it. Bravo. A celebration of everything that we’ve become, and a long look at everything we never need to be. We were splendid last night. Absolutely splendid. We played with immense heart, with togetherness, with passion, with courage. We played like it mattered, like there was pride at stake, in ourselves and in our club. We had leaders in every area of the pitch, even after our captain had departed. We were everything, or near enough, that Arsenal were not.

We played without our brains for a minute, that’s all. We lacked a little bit of quality and composure too. That’s enough. The regret is that we didn’t humble our supposedly illustrious opponents. God knows we’ll rarely have a better opportunity. But you know what? I’d rather lose like this than win like that.

Arsenal go fourth. I challenge you to say that with a straight face.

As for us, look how far we’ve come. And look how far we might still go.

Foster 2, Masina 4, *Cathcart 5*, Kabasele 4, Janmaat 5, Hughes 5, Capoue 5, Doucoure 4, Femenia 4, Gray 3, Deeney 2 Subs: Success (for Femenia, 59) 3, Sema (for Masina, 86) 0, Gomes, Britos, Mariappa, Chalobah, Navarro

Watford 3 Wolves 2 (AET) (07/04/2019) 08/04/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
29 comments

1- “I’ll tell you what”, says ig.  “It doesn’t half help that it’s not bloody Palace.  I’m enjoying it more already….”

The spectre of two miserable defeats here against Palace over the last six years have been hanging over every aspect of the group’s preparations.  An executive decision has been made to relocate to the Upper Tier for one thing.  There was a brief debate about the Railway public house but pragmatism won out on that one.  The problem clearly wasn’t the pub, it wasn’t West Hampstead which is far too convenient an assembly point to be recklessly discarded (although ig draws a line at what had been the lucky chocolate emporium of choice, a decision that delays his arrival).

There’s been a bit of twaddle on social media about our failure to sell our allocation.  There are reasons, obviously, too basic and banal to spell out, unworthy of what was to become a quite magnificent occasion to sully this report.  But when we get to Wembley Park… it’s daunting, frankly.  Difficult as it is to differentiate the colours, we are being comprehensively out-noised and seemed outnumbered by lots to one.  We’d discussed that if Wolves were happy to be here, we were past that stage.  We had to win it.  But Wolves don’t sound merely happy just to be here.

Still, to return to the beginning.  It wasn’t Palace.  Further down Wembley Way there’s an optimistic gentleman addressing a largely indifferent crowd behind a placard proclaiming “Jesus is Lord”.  We briefly consider nipping over to ask him about cheesemakers but we don’t, this is not a time for frivolity. We’re feeling positive.  But that doesn’t mean we’re not bricking it.

2- In the stadium, in our seats, having paid a fortune for unpleasant hot dogs (to be avoided next time – Ha!) Wolves are no less intimidating.  Their end fills more quickly, and their anthems make a daunting racket.  Our guys are singing behind the goal, from the top tier close to the divide above the halfway line we can see them but we can’t hear them.  ALL the Wolves fans are singing.  It’s oppressive, and it has an impact.  It feels almost insurmountable.

As an aside, and this seems as good a time as any to say it, this IS a completely different thing to the Palace games.  Winning’s going to help, obviously.  But this Wolves lot are supporting their team, noisily, boisterously.  It’s about them winning, not the other lot losing.  It’s almost as if pride in what you are doesn’t automatically need to involve hating those who are something else.  Who’d have thought?

Our first small victory comes with the visual display. Wolves’ tableau is impressive, but static.  A statement.  But it doesn’t compare to the frenzied energy of the waving of 33000 plastic flags, like insects swarming over the away end.  You can hear our lot now.  We’re fighting back.  The game hasn’t even started, obviously.  But we’re in it.

3- I wouldn’t have picked Gomes over Ben Foster.  I wouldn’t have started with Andre Gray either;  Wolves are famously strong down their spine but get-attable behind their attacking wing-backs.  That’s Gerry’s thing, making mischief in difficult places, surely?  As the sides line up, with the benefit of our extraordinary altitude, it appears that we’re playing a diamond with Pereyra at the apex and Capoue sweeping up behind.  But as we’ve discussed, it’s long since past the stage where I can even pretend to second-guess Javi, much less be worthy of questioning his decisions.

It’s felt like a gorgeously well-balanced game in the build up.  Two teams credibly the “best of the rest”, both with the wind behind them, both in fine form.  Perhaps 30 year high points, at least, for both?  It might have been, should have been a classic.  And whilst it’s hardly a cautious start, it’s certainly well balanced.  A cliché, but rarely has a period of play felt more like sparring, two sides probing and prodding and sizing each other up. Wolves attack like snakes, Jiménez and Jota rippling into spaces dangerously, but we begin to boss the midfield.  The diamond doesn’t quite work, we’re never quite as effective as we’re used to being, Doucouré is uncharacteristically low key.  But… then perhaps it’s what’s needed for this game and whatever, Hughes is scurrying and winning the ball and Pereyra is popping out of rabbit holes.  We’re not making a load of chances…  but we’re doing enough to suggest that there’s scope, that we can hurt them.

And then they score, and everything changes.  It’s a cruel, callous goal, a goal worthy of ig’s account of Wembley from three years ago.  A miserably avoidable affair, something that’s scarcely dependent on the balance of play all about concentration and silly silly detail.  My word, can you imagine if that had been it?

It still requires a fine delivery, an aggressive run, an opportunist nod from Doherty (the Irish Mob in the row behind unappreciative of their countryman’s contribution) but it’s careless, sloppy.  The spectre of Games Against Crystal Palace looms again.  We’re not out of it…  Andre Gray has two decent chances either side  but neither of them go in.  On review you have to give him credit for being there, neither is a terrible miss in the circumstances but nonetheless, chances they are and an open question Gray’s start had been and if you were of a more fragile frame of mind than our bloody lot you’d wonder whether things were stacked against us.

4- And then Wolves score again and there’s no longer any question that things are stacked against us.  This is a fine, fine finish, churlish to criticise our role in it since whatever we coulda mighta shoulda done it requires precision and elegance and ruthlessness and gets it as Jiménez chests down and strikes a brutal volley underneath Gomes.  Wolves are deafeningly jubilant and we’re sinking into our seats.  Daughter One to my left looks at me anxiously, wordlessly… concerned for my own well being as much as for the goal I think.

It’s stating the obvious, lazy hyperbole to say “at this point the game is over”.  Surely you were either watching or you’ve seen the highlights, highlights that don’t, that can’t hope to convey the infinite drama of the afternoon any more than, to reprise a particularly fine ig line (oh come on, it’s been twenty years…) you can capture a hurricane in a matchbox.

The significant thing, the most impressive thing perhaps of all the impressive things is the most obvious.  On the pitch, we’re not playing as if it’s over.  If heads go down it’s instantaneous, only lasting as long as the game takes to restart.  The extraordinary Jose Holebas is at the vanguard…. is it really only fifteen months since we were split on him?  We’re used to Troy dragging the team along with him, but Jose hasn’t given up on anything at this point, demonstrably.  It should be no surprise of course, we’ve watched him, we know that he picks up a gazillion bookings not because he’s particularly dirty or violent but because he can’t always, ever, quite harness his insane will to win within legal boundaries.  Here that will to win is an uncontaminated force for good, from our point of view.  We’re not only relentless, we’re actually more focused than we were at one down.  That’s got to sow a seed if you’re in a white shirt. But we still needed a piece of magic, and it came off the bench four minutes later.

5- Bollocks to five thunks, by the way.

6- It’s an outrageous goal.  We’d earned it, I think.  Earned it by not giving up the ghost, earned it by asking questions and pushing and probing and digging in.  But it’s still ridiculous.  In terms of impudence you’d compare it to the Okocha free kick from many years ago.  How did he even…. think that, let alone execute it?  In terms of scale and significance and context of course it’s beyond compare.  From a standing position and faced with Wolves’ redoubtable back line there’s no way through until, suddenly, impossibly there is.  And we’re roaring again.

There’s no kitchen sink.  There’s method and there’s patience.  It’s so, so tempting to judge decisions purely on outcomes…  nonetheless.  We hold our nerve, we don’t panic.  And so very nearly it’s not enough since, frankly, at no point did I believe it was on.  At no point did I seriously entertain hopes, let alone expectations of a comeback.  Not until Troy makes a run across Dendoncker two minutes into injury time and the referee blows his whistle.

That’s the pivotal moment, obviously.  Except it’s not a moment, it’s two minutes.  Two minutes waiting for VAR to make it’s mind up.  For the first time, and despite the clunky miscommunication of two earlier VAR calls to a baffled upper tier, I’m thinking that despite everything VAR might not be a bad idea.  Would you want to level a game like this on a bad decision, much less a dive?  There’s plenty of time to ponder this and many other things whilst we’re fixed on the screen, fingers in scalp, hair pulled taut.  And then the decision is confirmed and there’s no longer any debate about the outcome of the game.  In the space of that two minutes it’s gone from “we’re definitely gonna lose” to “we’re definitely gonna win”.

7- Never in doubt.  No, it’s not the best placed penalty you’ve ever seen but unless John Ruddy’s right behind it it’s going in anyway such is the violence of the strike.  There’s no news here but bloody hell Troy Deeney.  Balls of absolute steel.  It appeals to his sense of theatre too, obviously, and the scream of catharsis on the side of the ground tinted in red lasts for some considerable time.

Never in doubt.  Though… I claim some small credit.  At some point, my head says at the start of extra time but… you know, details… Daughter 2 demands water.  Such bafflingly ill-timed requests have become less frequent as the girls have gotten older but mindful of the belief in karma of two or three years ago I dutifully bundle down into the concourse as the game restarts to find all of the kiosks closed.  I return with clear conscience.

Wolves were done, toast, quite obviously.  Good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes…. but their decision to replace many of their attacking weapons in favour of resilience was now costing them, and more so the famously small, tight squad that has been such a feature of their season but which now was really really exposed.  They were dead on their feet for one thing, to so much a greater extent than our boys.  And that the confidence-shorn Cavaleiro and the numbingly one-dimensional Traoré was the best they could offer off the bench for another.  How wonderful that it was both Gray and Deulofeu. How wonderful, how outrageous that not so very long from a situation where we’d deliberate between X and Y whilst knowing that the answer is neither, suddenly the answer is either. How wonderful that it was such a fine, fine, thing.  A merciless, decisive blow, and though Cavaleiro stumbled past Gomes in the second period of injury time the outcome was – have I mentioned this? – never in doubt.

8- A number of asides, a number of details.  Étienne Capoue… it’s… an easier job to look good at, sitting at the back of a midfield.  Remember Al Bangura?  Nonetheless.  Bloody hell.  A monstrous performance.  A monstrous performance that could very easily have seen him missing the final had the referee been Roger blood Milford instead of Michael Oliver who has somehow managed to remain inconspicuous in this behemoth of a football game and, as Dave is keen to point out, opts against grandstanding with a red card after Capoue’s tired tackle in the middle of the pitch.  Kudos to the official.

Another?  The Wolves side empties, obviously.  That was very nearly us.  In our heads, it was us.  We’ve done that miserable trudge back to the tube in, well, not quite these circumstances, but you know what I mean.  And of course a lot of them have long gone by the time we stumble stupidly down Wembley Way, dazed and happy and stunned.  But only one Wolves fan, one lad on the steps up to the tube, lets his disappointment get the better of him and briefly mouths off in the face of considerable, if not pointed or deliberate, provocation.  We’ve been there. Fair play.  Fair play.

Another?  The realisation that whatever happens in mid-May, 1984 no longer carries that unique significance.  No longer appropriate to use those digits as a go-to four character code for irrelevant, trivial stuff.  We’ve matched that achievement at the very least, and we can still better it.

9 – But best of all?  No, not best of all, let’s be honest.  But still marvellous, still wonderful…

Troy, on the pitch at the end of the game, interviewed.  And already on the Arsenal game.  Head in the right place.  Game on.

Don’t expect the league season to peter out, not a bit of it, not this lot.  The reality is that uniquely amongst the four or five contestants for seventh, we know that achieving that target will guarantee European football next season, our first since 1983.  It’ll take those of us off the pitch a lot longer than Troy to regain our balance, focus, perspective.  By the time we briefly regroup back at the Railway we’re energetically discussing how we’ve got to remember everything we’ve done, everything we’ve said,  to recreate it in six weeks time but twenty four hours on I’m still dazed.

Troy isn’t.  Troy’s got his head in the right space.

Never in doubt.

Enjoy it boys and girls.

Yoooorns.

Gomes 3, Femenía 4, Holebas 4, Cathcart 3, Mariappa 3, Capoue 4, Hughes 3, Doucouré 3, Pereyra 3, Deeney 4, Gray 3
Subs:  *Deulofeu (for Hughes, 66) 5*, Masina (for Holebas, 98) 3, Janmaat (for Femenía, 108) 0, Sema (for Deulofeu, 112) 0, Quina, Kabasele, Foster

 

Manchester United 2 Watford 1 (30/03/2019) 31/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
7 comments

1- I’m again undergoing the process of trying to explain the following football thing to an unbeliever. You’ve all been there I’m sure… trying to describe your pastime?  way of life? without sounding trite, or puerile, trying to do it justice.

In any formal programme of training, the subtleties of service station encounters with opposing supporters would form part of an advanced course only.  Very much “Fully Operational”, this, way beyond “Basic Awareness” or “Working Knowledge”. After all, your uninterested subject is unlikely to progress quickly to the status of “Going Away”, where this most nuanced area of expertise is likely to be required.  The art of glancing casually at an opposing Port Vale shirt in passing for identification purposes is an expert skill, the balance between stroll and swagger as you pass opposing supporters takes practice, the knowledge of when to venture a “who’ve you got today mate?” or a “how’d you boys get on?” borne of experience.

Today there’s an additional angle.  Our companions for much of the M6 are Wolves, on their way to and from Turf Moor.  There’s a complex extra fraction of a second in these encounters, a fraction of a second that encompasses excitement, tension, fear, defiance and a shared understanding in a single glance. This is the filter over the whole day.  Team selection, outcome, perspective is all about next Sunday.

But for some reason nobody told the team.

2- With that “Next Sunday” filter on, more discussion than normal went into starting eleven speculation pre-match.  Full strength today, stiffs on Tuesday was a popular call (though in these days of Cleverley, Gray, Quina, Janmaat “stiffs” hardly feels appropriate any more).  Chuck a blanket over today as we tried to do at City, pick a tough team and split the first teamers over the two games accordingly another.

Rest the back four – the whole back four mind, at Old Trafford – start everyone else and go hell for leather wasn’t high on anyone’s list but that’s why Javi’s head coach and we’re not.

We were absolutely fabulous, to a man and from the very off.  Not least the “reserves” at the back;  Janmaat, only arguably a downgrade on Kiko in any case, and the dogged, focused Adam Masina in comfortably the best I’ve seen him in a Watford shirt rampaged up the wings.  Miguel Britos has been unfairly demonised over the last twelve months, splendid that if he is to return to Uruguay in the summer as trailed it’ll be on the back of thoroughly solid, competent displays like this.  And Christian Kabasele… he’s good at the stuff he’s good at, the brainfarts are what lets him down there was none of that today.  Aggressive, disciplined defending, as aggressive in fact as any situation permitted, often quite enjoyably so.

Part of the plan quite clearly, however, was to play in a way that made us less reliant on our defence than a rearguard action would be.  How bold, at Old Trafford of all places, to hammer at the opponent from the off.  How extraordinary to conjure a performance like this from a game of which little is expected a week before Next Sunday.

3- You’ll have noted the footnote, the caveat already.  A minor inconvenience:  we didn’t win the game.  We could have done, maybe should have done.  But none in the away end, surely, are entirely reliant on a result for their enjoyment of an away day, let alone an away day as the underdog and in every other respect the afternoon was magnificent.  Gentle sunshine, a bristling, ambitious, brave performance.  If you still felt like a bit of a nuisance as an away fan, a necessary evil amongst the many, presumably lucrative, accents and languages audible around the busy stadium perimeter then at least this treatment was less thoroughly objectionable than on previous visits.

For the first twenty minutes we were very much on the front foot.  Startlingly positive and assertive in fact as Troy kicked off an epic afternoon’s confrontation with Chris Smalling and Deulofeu, Bobby and Will Hughes started to ping the ball around.  The “20 shots” thing is a little misleading – several of these were shots in name only, rarely in danger of threatening the scoreline.  Nonetheless the game was being played in United’s half for the most part and if we weren’t yet frightening the home side they nonetheless looked rather affronted at the way things were turning out.

The threat was on the break, and we were largely attentive to it.  Marcus Rashford twice went down easily in the box, evidence of early discomfort with The Way It Was Going but the notorious Stuart Atwell was generally resilient to the Old Trafford effect and wasn’t having it.  When the crucial break came it was almost perfect and needed to be… we were caught, committing men forward on the right, Luke Shaw (“he’s a really odd shape” – Will) broke and played a perfect ball into Rashford’s arcing run and that was that.

Briefly we were on our heels.  United came at us, allowing Ashley Young some time in front of our corner as an attacking right back.  This permitted Dave and Will to wander off into a debate about how justified him getting stick was in the light of his ill-judged celebration at the Vic last season;  you can predict much of that exchange, which in fairness was more intelligent, informed and reasoned than many debates you’ll have heard recently.  Meanwhile on the pitch United fashioned one clear chance from their period of pressure;  in truth Martial should have scored as the ball came to him in unacceptable space in a frantic penalty area but Foster reacted immaculately to block his stabbed shot.  One-nil at half-time a slightly harsh reflection.

4- But if we’d started the first half encouragingly, the second half was simply tremendous.  We’ve talked about our current midfield before;  comparisons and superlatives are so abstract as to be almost meaningless.  How can you possibly compare these four to, say, Callaghan-Taylor-Jackett-Barnes in any meaningful way?

Absolutes are easier.  This midfield is bloody wonderful, but they’ve only rarely reached the collective heights achieved this afternoon.  Pereyra, the quietest of the four in recent weeks, was back in full matador effect, cutting inside from the left and slinging in a low shot that De Gea clawed away from the bottom corner.  Will Hughes was at his menacing, mischievous best, snapping into challenges one minute, orchestrating neat little triangles to prize open crossing opportunities the next. Deeney cushioned down to him, again, and he curled a shot with his weaker left foot around De Gea and, cruelly, the far post. Étienne Capoue snarled around the pitch, bullishly denying United possession and effortlessly spreading the play.  And Doucouré… well.  He’s destined for an arena like this, for a club like this and he looked every bit at home.  The leggy French midfielder dictating the game wasn’t Paul Pogba… in truth it was rather odd that United afforded him as much space as they did, but for the fact that when they tried to close him down he purred into a different dimension and bent himself away from attention anyway, so why bother?

5- The Stretford End had displayed a banner welcoming the newly confirmed Solskjaer prior to kick off.  The 20LEGEND slogan being replicated on advertising hoardings betrayed this as the corporate branding that it was rather than the voice of the support.  Nonetheless, if someone has to restore United to their former glories it might as well be someone as thoroughly likeable as the Norwegian, his post-match comments gracious and candid.  If you gave the slightest damn about United you might pause to wonder what sort of reaction this sort of performance, being outplayed and counterattacking at home – might have yielded under the previous incumbent.  But we don’t.

Smalling and Jones played considerable role in repelling the green tide of flicks, spins and triangles.  As United broke with their only worthwhile attack of the second half they got the bit of luck that we’d been denied.  No view of the goal from the away end, social media suggestions of offside proved groundless by TV footage.

But still we kept at them. How easy would it have been to shrug at this point?  To say “OK, we gave it a go…”.  Femenía, on for the injured looking Janmaat shortly after the break, roared and howled down the right… in any other era he’d be one of the team’s heroes.  Gray and Success were a statement of intent;  the latter failed to do much right but crucially provided the flicked assist to Doucs’ audacious, brilliant goal as one of those ping-ping passing routines finally played us through.  There was scarcely time to locate the kitchen sink, one free kick, one goalmouth scramble which briefly suggested the impossible before play was stopped for a foul.  And that was that.

6- Incredibly, we’d all but forgotten about Next Sunday.  Only briefly, as Capoue lay prostrate, as Troy limped briefly, as Deulofeu was hacked down did we remember.  Until we got to Sandbach and compared notes with some Wolves fans, feeling their bruises after a battering from Burnley.  “Jesus.  Can you imagine what Sunday will be like if Brighton actually beat City on Saturday”.  A terrified pause.  “Naaah, won’t happen”.

Here’s the thing.  Saturday’s gone, we lost.  Fine.  But we were completely brilliant.  Nobody who watched this game should have any concerns, not about Next Sunday, not about finishing seventh. We’re that good.

Bring on the next one.  Yooooorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, Masina 4, Britos 4, Kabasele 5, *Doucouré 5*, Capoue 5, Hughes 5, Pereyra 5, Deulofeu 4, Deeney 4
Subs: Femenía (for Janmaat, 55) 4, Gray (for Deulofeu, 73) 3, Success (for Hughes, 0), Cathcart, Holebas, Quina, Gomes

Watford 2 Crystal Palace 1 (16/03/2019) 18/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- I was in Copenhagen this week. First time in Denmark. A conference though so a busy schedule, and most of it spent in a hotel. Nice hotel but… a shame to visit a new country and not see any of it.

So. Tuesday evening I set out to find the damned mermaid. A bloody-minded mission in defiance of a 50-minute walk each way in the cold, biting rain borne of the need to get out and walk somewhere with purpose.

I knew that the statue itself was famously underwhelming. Not big, not dramatic, not something to write home about. So my expectations weren’t high. In consequence perhaps I found the unassuming, unpretentious mermaid quite charming. No grandstanding. No ticket vendors, no tat-stalls, no queuing. Just…there, minding its own business as the world carried on quietly around it.

Which led me to wonder… if something unheralded and uncelebrated could leave me pleasantly surprised, what should, could be expected from something, contrastingly, overburdened with expectation? Would it be possible, conceivable, to be anything but disappointed?

2- Nobody disappointed. Nobody short-changed.

The tide of confidence was rolling by 11.15. That’s when “it’s bloody Palace, isn’t it?” was swept over and crushed. But in effect the build up to that wave, the little ripples, started at least a week earlier as Palace lost to Brighton, Southampton and Newcastle earned unlikely wins and the Eagles started looking over their shoulders again. So when Zaha pulled a calf muscle in training it was never going to be risked.

It may not have been significant, certainly not decisive in determining the outcome of the game. We’ve beaten Palace twice this season with the gravitationally challenged one in tow after all. But your opponent losing a key man doesn’t hurt, and the timing was significant. Nervous energy rippled through the V-Bar as confirmation of the previous evening’s rumour set grins grinning and bellows bellowing.

Out in the stands it was no less raucous. High fives were exchanged, knowing looks traded. The ferocious wind carried the multitude of flags and the tremendous 1881’s cannons fired slugs of streamers and confetti into a whirlwind of bedlam. “Is that all you take away?” was roared at an away end, some of whose members had been vocally demanding more than their ticket entitlement. Then the football started.

3- And what followed was a quite herculean first half. Made better, more impressive if anything by the fact that Palace took the early initiative, moving the ball neatly and just about retaining possession as we hurtled about after it, Étienne Capoue blown along by a wind commanded by the Gods. It didn’t last though, the penetration wasn’t there and much as Michy Batshuayi provided a focal point he was getting nothing.

Meanwhile at the Rookery end more significant headway was being made, and Gerard Deulofeu was at the heart of it. He cut through first and forced Guaita – a supposed one time target for us, but a nervous looking individual here – into a save. By the time the goal came we were hammering on the door increasingly insistently; the latest in a succession of corners was flung across by Holebas, the keeper lunged at it ambitiously before it was knocked back to Capoue and into the net before Palace’s defence, or the support behind the goal, had time to react.

Voices were hoarse and limbs being disentangled by the time focus returned to the pitch. For the rest of the half we had our foot on their throats. Deulofeu roared through on the right and hammered a drive towards Guaita’s unguarded near top corner. As so often there might have been better options… but churlish to criticise, it almost came off and was denied only by a fine stop. Kevin Friend, who has made a pig’s ear of far less challenging games but did a good job here awarded us a free kick, Deulofeu did well to get it on target, but a comfortable save for Guaita. The half ended with Palace breaking after some rare slack possession from the Hornets, and Deulofeu screaming back in pursuit of possession, eventually obstructing the attack by the corner flag. Heroic stuff. Meanwhile Andros Townsend was in a right old strop, remonstrating with officials as Holebas lay prone with a knock that would force him off at one end, then repeating the trick at the Rookery end shortly afterwards. We were all over this. There was just one problem.

4- Which lurched into view with the second half. Being worth more than a one goal lead is fine, as long as you capitalise on it. The visitors were out significantly earlier than us… I normally think of this as a good thing, time spent hanging around and so forth. Instead they took control from the start of the half, piling bodies down the flanks to bypass the surrendered centreground.

Again, they failed to convert their possession into chances. The one save that Gomes made at 1-0 was a fine one to deny a Meyer header as it bounced through the box… on review this may have been our biggest break during the game, a flick off Cheick Kouyaté might have wrong-footed the keeper. Instead he pulled out a stunning reflex save.

When the goal came and much as it felt like it had been coming, it was our own doing. Mariappa at fault, certainly, but not entirely. If we’re honest, and much as it goes against the prevailing sentiment, Gomes’ sliced clearance to Femenía created a situation that could have been avoided, much as Mariappa, who otherwise did a decent job of subduing Batshuayi, had the chance to remedy decisively. As it was the Belgian took his chance with aplomb, as he’s wont to do in games against us. Five in four games well publicised, five in 221 minutes – less than 2.5 games of active play – less so. He celebrated blowing kisses to the Rookery, no doubt in response to generous congratulations offered by the home end.

5- And here’s where Javi’s genius shone through like sunlight through a gap in the clouds. Could so easily have gone wrong here in so many ways and of course good decisions don’t guarantee good outcomes and vice versa. But the whole of the home end must have been willing a change in personnel, something to stiffen up a midfield that was suddenly losing the battle. For me, something that involved Tom Cleverley giving us an extra body, settling things down, scurrying around after things, perhaps in place of the still listless Pereyra.

And yet Javi, as my co-editor energetically pointed out at the final whistle, held his nerve. Instead of hooking Pereyra he withdrew the tiring Will Hughes, who continues to echo Nick Wright in his willingness to charge around for 70 minutes before leaving the pitch barely able to walk. On comes Andre Gray to add his snarling, snapping menace to the proceedings.

You know the rest. Pereyra justified his place on the pitch with the most magnificent piece of football of the second half, simultaneously bloody minded and beautiful, burrowing his way out of tight attention and then clipping a perfect pass into Gray’s stride. You can criticise the defending, but it took an awful lot for that to be relevant… between them they unpeeled the defence and Gray capitalised sharply, his third winner off the bench in consecutive home games.

6- It wasn’t done. The remaining ten minutes contained plenty of hair wringing and angst…. Deeney drove in a shot, Guaita fumbled and the excellent Wan-Bissaka beat Deulofeu to the rebound. The same player snatched at Palace’s best chance at the other end, dragging a shot across the face of goal. And that was it, the last flailings of this particularly odious opponent before they descended into irrelevance and – we can hope – a relegation scrap.

Roars, bellows at the final whistle. Then loud, long salutes to the many heroes of the hour. To Javi. To Andre Gray. To Gomes. The last two clearly emotional. By the time you read this you’ll know who we’ll face in the semi in only three weeks time… that’s to come. Whoever we’ve drawn, it’s a Cup Semi at Wembley (yes, me too) and a chance to take a step closer to something quite historic for our ever more wonderful club.

Bring it on. Yoooorns.

Gomes 4, Femenía 5, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Hughes 4, Capoue 5, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 3, *Deulofeu 5*, Deeney 4
Subs: Masina (for Holebas, 45) 3, Gray (for Hughes, 77) 0, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 89) 0, Janmaat, Kabasele, Success, Dahlberg

Watford 2 Leicester City 1 (03/03/2019) 03/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

1- I was tempted to begin at the end.

That’s what we’ll remember, after all. Those of us that were here today. For all that there was plenty of backstory, for all that this was a potentially significant game, for all that there was plenty to enjoy in what was a throbbing, vital, bass drum of a contest. All the detail is lost in the flailing limbs.

But I won’t start at the end. Else why would you read the rest of it?

And the beginning, strictly speaking, is Tuesday’s management announcement in Leicestershire which confirmed that for the third home game in a row we would be facing a former boss. The third of the three home games this calendar year incidentally versus nine away of which only two defeats, a figure distorted by cup draws and Spurs’ stadium nonsense… but these statistics which highlight how well the present incumbent is doing and how the identity and history of the Other Bloke only matters up to a point.

Nonetheless. Brendan Rodgers. Much-travelled since his nine months or so here, nine months that pale into a footnote versus what’s happened to both parties since. Nonetheless, we remember. And for what it’s worth, a slightly half-arsed boo to the invitation to greet our former boss, followed by some gently mocking chants when we remembered feels about right. Ten years is too long ago for the Silva treatment and anyway that was never really comparable. Rodgers did a fine job when he was here, much of the reaction on his departure was fuelled by disappointment, much of the rest by his preponderance for putting his foot in his mouth, his almost total lack of self-awareness, the David Brent/Alan Partridge thing. But we know what a basket case the club was then. It isn’t now. Neither of these things are/were down to Rodgers. For what it’s worth, his greatest crime in my book remains boasting about Tommy Smith wanting to join him at Reading despite not having permission to talk to the player; that Smith chose to leave him, and his unveiling press conference, in the lurch and join Pompey only slightly assuaged the dejection of seeing the twice Player of the Season move on. Oh, and being the first Watford manager younger than me. By ten days. Nobody should have to deal with that at the age of only 35.

2- It’s cold. And wet. On the plus side, at least it feels like March, in contrast to much of February feeling like June. Whatever other crazy shit is going down in the world and despite my lack of a scarf the weather has, at least for a moment, got back on track.

It’s tempting, of course, to read too much into the Rodgers thing… he’s only been there a matter of days. Nonetheless, thinking back ten years or so and remembering his uncompromising, ideological, some might say ambitious, others might say fundamentalist to the point of stupid attempts to turn Aidy Boothroyd’s rather spartan approach upside down overnight it’s interesting to note that he’s moved to a back three straight away. Every time Wes Morgan is wheeled out against us it feels like surely, surely the last time.

So, we don’t know how Rodgers will turn out for City. But beyond dispute that this probably isn’t a bad time to being playing them, all things considered and the potential for post-Puel bounce notwithstanding. Actually I’d half expected a more venomous single-minded early assault that we actually delivered; from the far end it looked rather as if Leicester’s defence seemed to cave in on itself under minimal pressure. By the time Troy put us ahead on five minutes, a fine header to a whipped Deulofeu cross, City were already visibly tentative. Mariappa forced Schmeichel into a block, Deulofeu’s follow-up was also deflected away as Morgan, Evans and Maguire started giving out hand-written invitations to come and have a go. Twice free kicks were conceded needlessly in threatening wide positions, the second of which yielding the goal.

3- But that’s an experienced bunch of centre-halves and however optimistic the ask of them City pulled themselves together and started stringing passes along. I was slightly disappointed at our failure to hold on to the initiative, to pin City back and not let them settle, but then again City haven’t changed enough over a week to have forgotten how to be a counterattacking side and Jamie Vardy will always, as we’ll see, love big open spaces to run into. There is, in short, a reason that Javi Gracia is Watford coach and I’m just waffling into a blog.

It says something that the three on-target efforts of the first half all came in the first five minutes. That’s a slightly misleading statistic, since both sides threatened more than this suggests; balls across the box that just needed a touch, that sort of thing. Nonetheless, City had a five man midfield against Watford’s four (which is effectively a five given the Doucouré/Capoue engine in the centre, to steal City’s N’Golo Kanté trope) and it all got rather congested. Much of City’s play was in classic death-by-football territory, passing the ball around until somebody gave the ball away (often Ben Chilwell, source of plenty of both good and bad things but often subdued by a monumental first half from Will Hughes).

However the threat was growing. If there’s an argument in favour of VAR (and I remain unconvinced on balance) it’s the existence of the likes of Jamie Vardy… so quick and so direct that he will always provoke situations which require officials to make a decision that they almost certainly aren’t in a position to make. Whether and how often Vardy exploits this to his advantage is almost moot – at that speed all it takes is a touch. The referee was fooled at their place in December, I was fooled here as Mariappa tripped Vardy. I saw no contact, I was wrong.

Harry Maguire endeared himself here by ludicrously demanding a red card of the official despite Vardy being half a mile from the goal and heading towards the corner flag when felled. Shortly afterwards Mapps redeemed himself in part by vanquishing Maguire’s threat decisively at the far post to loud cheers all round, and then propelled himself well into credit with a superhuman goal-saving defensive header, clearing a vicious left wing cross off of the forehead of Jonny Evans. With five or ten minutes to the break the visitors were threatening for perhaps the only sustained spell in the game; by the time the whistle went everything had calmed down. It being lunchtime I went and queued for food in the concourse for ten minutes, made minimal progress and returned to my seat for the second half empty handed.

4- That City only managed that one spell of sustained pressure until they briefly kitchen sinked it at the end says an awful lot for the defensive shape of our side. Many have said that Mariappa’s failings, particularly in possession, make him a position to upgrade in this team. This may be true but without doubt you’d always choose to have him around as an option, since this was a disciplined defensive team performance that wasn’t high on weak links for City to exploit. Yes, they over-elaborated. No, they rarely looked terribly like scoring despite their second half possession. But passing like that will find chinks in the end if you don’t concentrate.

The wild card in the second half was the refereeing of Jonathan Moss. It should be emphasised that the standard of refereeing in the Premier League is extremely high. We’ve been victim and beneficiary of some bizarre decisions but very few poor performances in stark contrast to, for example, the 1999-2000 season (Rob Harris, Uriah Rennie, Andy D’Urso and co. Shudder). However Moss, on repeated occasions, seems to be a bit of a throwback; the sort of overweight short-sighted buffoon cartoon depiction of a referee you used to see in Shoot! cartoons when I were a lad. Here, as previously, his tendency to tie himself to the centre-spot and linger behind the play was peppered with an absolute refusal to give Troy anything, no matter where Harry Maguire stuck his arms or what he did with them reached a crescendo in the middle of the half. Troy himself was booked for a challenge on Schmeichel that seemed, on one look, to owe rather more to Schmeichel being a goalkeeper than to the severity of the challenge, whereas both Doucouré and Deulofeu had been crudely taken out in unsuccessful attempts to curtail the attack that had broken to that point in challenges that went uncensored.

Our own attacks fizzed briefly, but with greater threat. A bewildering move down the left resulted in City’s now more resolute defence once again at sixes and sevens as Doucouré slugged a shot that Schmeichel beat away. Holebas embarked on an heroic, buccaneering charge down the left that ended with a cutback that didn’t quite have enough on it to reach Troy but earned a grinning salute from the skipper anyway.

And then, as yet another appeal from Troy as Maguire climbed all over him was waved away, it happened. The excellent Tielemans picked out a pass, Vardy was off, Mariappa was on a card but wasn’t catching him anyway. One all. Difficult to argue, much as it felt as if Moss’ officiating neutered our attempts to dominate City’s backline.

5- Even without what followed, Troy was the Man of the Match. This is his sort of thing of course, a physical contest against foes that aren’t quite as superhuman as Virgil Van Dyk. He would go on to cement his position by conducting a post-match interview, often his most testing opponent, in which he dismissed Moss as a buffoon implicitly whilst explicitly praising his performance. A work of art. He’d earlier garnished his afternoon by cheerfully acknowledging the visiting support’s predictable and perhaps understandable greeting.

But otherwise, and his lack of support from the officials notwithstanding, this was Troy in full effect. A monstrous beast of a performance. For all the “you fat bastard” chants he looks lighter this year, lither and more mobile. But he’s still unplayable on this form, his form since the start of the calendar year. A fine afternoon’s entertainment despite perhaps limited quality was afforded new lustre as Kaspar Schmeichel’s careless throw was intercepted by Doucouré who fed Deeney. With his back to the goal inside City’s half, with a marker in close attendance and without looking he played a through-ball over his shoulder to the onrushing Andre Gray. A big scrapper yes, but a delicate footballer too, deceptively so, still. Gray, who hadn’t quite tuned in up to this point, raced away and scored a Vardy goal, slipping the ball under the goalkeeper.

And there you are. There you have it. You’d watch a whole season worth of shit for moments like this, moments where the world explodes in joy and bodies fly past in happy abandon and your vision is obscured by twinkly lights and disorientation. The backstory, the context, the level of football make no difference. If you’re invested in a team there’s nothing like an injury time winner, and even in that context this explosion of everything was a belter.

And it upholds a proud tradition, of course. There are many sides I’d wish ill on above Leicester, but we don’t half enjoy a late winner against the Foxes. There’s this one, obviously. But this one was decent too. Oh and this one. And remember this one…?

Andre Gray’s name was yelled from the Rookery post-match, not before time. A huge result this, absolutely monstrous. In the context of “The Everton Cup”… our next two League games are at City and United. Any points a bonus really, going into them off two defeats – Cup Quarter Final in between or otherwise – not great. But now? We go into those games four points ahead of West Ham. Six ahead of Everton, Seven ahead of City, Nine ahead of Bournemouth, Ten ahead of Palace. And after those two games? Five of our remaining seven games at home, and plausibly winnable.

What a time to be alive.

Yoorns.

Foster 3, Janmaat 3, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4. Hughes 4, Capoue 3, Doucouré 4, Pereyra 2, *Deeney 5*, Deulofeu 3
Subs: Gray (for Deulofeu, 69) 3, Cleverley (for Hughes, 90) 0, Masina, Kabasele, Quina, Success, Gomes

Watford 1 Everton 0 (09/02/2019) 10/02/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
8 comments

1- So, the Marco Silva thing we’ll all have talked to death, I’m guessing. It happened, it’s tiresome, it doesn’t reflect well on him or on his current employers and on reflection we’ve probably done quite well out of the whole thing really.

That he left is long since not an issue of course. As time has progressed the most cynical interpretation, that his reputation is built on sand, has been afforded more traction by Everton’s iffy form but that aside I want to like my club and I want to like the head coach. That’s more important than winning really, though ideally you’d have both (thanks, Javi…). So the departure of a man who was vain enough, sufficiently without shame to want to leave Watford as early as he did for the reasons he did… we were manifestly better off out of it even before his managerial limitations became (more) evident.

Everton’s behaviour I find harder to move on from, which isn’t entirely rational. They clearly did wrong, the offer of compensation tacitly acknowledged that, the ongoing independent investigation resultant from Watford’s complaint feels right and will hold the shabby Toffees to account, one hopes. But worse things happen at sea. In the grand scheme of things… there are bigger scumbags on our TV screens every day.

What really rankles is the way the arrogance of the Toffees’ approach echoes the arrogance of the barrel-scrapings on social media. Every club’s support is a broad school of course and heaven knows that it’s painfully easy to get wound up on Twitter whether you want to or not, empty vessels make the most noise and so forth. But there’s a colour to these barrel-scrapings when it comes to bigger clubs that grates and it’s evident in the way that supporters of such clubs fall back on their bigness as a sort of surrogate currency when their team is actually a bit shit. “Yeah, but we’re a massive club”. Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Villa and, yes, Everton take note. Everton’s own presumptuousness in their approach reflected the same attitude, the basest, crassest element of their support; the difference is that Everton aren’t faceless inaccessible goons on twitter. All power to the Hornets for not letting this lie.

2- The atmosphere in the ground before kick-off was brittle. I must confess that I didn’t notice the widely-celebrated playlist, but there was no missing Emma Saunders’ pointed welcome to the visiting head coach over the tannoy. It achieved the result it was designed to, albeit that the venom directed at Silva – and certainly at Richarlíson who received a mixture of half-hearted applause and similarly half-hearted catcalls – seemed restrained. Not the bear-pit of animosity that had been heralded, not yet anyway… perhaps because of Troy’s encouragements to back the team rather than focus on the opposition, perhaps because of a nervousness at ramifications of giving it large too early. Perhaps because the passage of events, the gradual shading in of the colours on the landscape, make it clear that we can afford disdain and ridicule, less vigorous forms of hostility than outright hatred.

So… not as hostile as anticipated. But certainly boisterous, certainly noisy. The 1881’s massive hart-flag covered the Rookery pre match; the ferocious wind got underneath it and briefly you pictured supporters on the edges being lifted into the sky by a vigorous gust but the banner descending was as a curtain lifting on the spectacle and we roared in anticipation.

3- And the Watford team followed suit. An approach designed to subdue this unconvinced, unconvincing, mentally half-arsed Everton side it might have been, but the unapologetic aggression of the Watford performances was unprecedented and spectacular and fitted the mood. Jose Holebas set an early tone, which may not surprise you, slugging a ferocious clearance straight at Tom Davies to clear the lines at the first threat. Thereafter we were a thundering, intimidating juggernaut… never snide, never vicious, merely brutal. Designed to provoke an “oh f*** this” response.

And Everton didn’t like it. To their credit they never threw in the towel, and after all a back line of Zouma and Keane isn’t likely to be bullied, but this was a challenge to their mentality more than their physique. Some stood up to it better than others. Richarlíson, certainly, will not have expected any favours off Holebas on the Watford left and received none. This was the left back, increasingly a cult hero at Vicarage Road, at his single-minded best; he shoved the Brazilian deep into his pocket to grapple with the packet of fags and the loose change with a warning not to cause any trouble. And he didn’t, not really… this was a performance right out of the playbook of the tail end of last season, all flouncing and remonstration and pouting drizzled with the occasional glimpse of what he’s capable of.

By the second half the Brazilian had disappeared up his own backside, writhing around at the slightest contact in what might have been a Neymar tribute but for the lack of spaghetti on his head. In the end even his own teammates didn’t bother checking on him. This in stark contrast to Richarlíson when his pecker’s up, the Richarlíson who gives as good as he gets when he wants to, who makes you think that the £50million (or whatever, insert whichever figure you choose to believe) might have been a good deal for all parties. Not on this evidence. Subbed midway through the second half, he was jeered off.

4- Back in the first half, and if this was a huge improvement on the stupefying trip to Brighton last week and if there was no lack of vigour then it was still rather low on quality. Indeed, whilst the Hornets came close when Capoue slammed a chest-down from Deeney which Pickford somehow propelled over, the visitors had the better chances for all their apparent discomfort… Keane dropped a header into Foster’s arms, Zouma failed to get any power behind a much more presentable chance, he should have scored. The ponderous Tosun was given a chance by some inattentive passing on the edge of the box and forced a good stop from Foster. For the Hornets, the centre-backs excelled, Cathcart as ever looking like the bit that makes the whole defence work, Mariappa perpetually in the right place. Elsewhere Doucouré and Capoue resumed their heavy duty partnership in the centre to powerful effect, but we were struggling to make inroads; Ken Sema threw his weight around but didn’t create an awful lot, Gerard Deulofeu dropped too deep in search of the ball and was overwhelmed by the stronger tides in the middle of the park, sucked further into irrelevance.

5- So the half time substitution made an enormous difference. You’ve got to feel sorry for Sema, there were a number of other calls that could have been made… but Deulofeu moving back to a wide position suddenly made him vital and incisive, Andre Gray was the best version of Andre Gray, snarling and pressing and making the Danny Graham runs that pull the defence around.

The gameboard tipped decisively for the first time. We were on top now, our foot on Everton’s throat and if we were still struggling to make chances then the ball wasn’t in our half terribly often, and rarer still without our expressed consent. And the decisive play was a beautiful thing in so many ways… first in the way that we magicked the irrepressible Holebas out of a hat again on the edge of the box, then in the swaggering shot across the bows that followed.

It didn’t look as if Pickford had touched it at the time but a corner was the award, one of a catalogue of bizarre decisions from a set of officials who had an erratic afternoon. Silva would later peevishly try to argue that these errors all went one way which wasn’t strictly true – a difficult game to officiate, but Lee Probert in particular did seem keen to support the narrative suggested by Troy’s unfortunately broadcast “kick the sh*t out of them” comments”.

Either way, an underlying mentality was consistently displayed by Silva’s comments, by the miserable Zouma’s hilarious post-match dismissal, by the shattering effect of this decision on the visitors’ mentality. A fragility of mindset. Probert didn’t give us a goal, or a penalty. It was a corner. You’ve still got to defend it… and for all their notoriety in dealing with such things the goal didn’t come from the first assault on the goal. More than to the bad decision it owed a bundle to a glorious reverse-flicked pass from that manyCathcart, a centre-back mark you, which unpeeled Everton’s defence beyond salvation. Will Hughes squared firmly on the scamper, Gray was left with a deserved tap in. The irony of A.Gray deciding the game to protests from his opposing keeper will not have been lost on many of sufficient years, least of all Steve Sherwood whose half time ovation was a highlight of the afternoon. (And no I can’t take the credit for that observation but it’s inspired so I plagiarise without apology).

6- And now we were not just noisy but lording it, revelling in the moment. Everton came back at us, looking urgent for the first time; “Dominic Calvert-Lewin always bloody scores against us” an unhelpful observation in my ear as the striker appeared off the bench. Not this time though, although he had a chance, heading wide. It could have been different.

Instead the chants came thick and fast, the visiting head coach unable to make his shouts heard over the revelry suggesting what might happen to his employment the next morning, and observing which of our last two head coaches was better than which. At the final whistle the magnificent Aidy Mariappa on his 300th appearance, on the same ground where he cried as the youth cup side he captained exited the FA Youth Cup in 2005, gave his shirt to a kid in the front of the Rookery and left us with a primal scream of triumph. Harry Hornet, meanwhile, was wrestling with and ultimately subduing an inflatable snake. Childish, yes, but he’s a man in a hornet’s costume so, you know.

Everton, in summary, looked lamentable. Their graceless manager surely a busted flush, his employers’ similarly graceless conduct rendering subsequent events all the more enjoyable.

We didn’t play an awful lot better in truth, but we looked focused, together, single-minded and deserved the win. We’re now the eighth best team in the land, would you believe, with a buffer to ninth and a load of winnable home games before the end of the campaign.

What’s not to like? Yoooorns.

 

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, *Holebas 5*, Cathcart 5, Mariappa 5, Hughes 3, Doucouré 4, Capoue 4, Sema 3, Deulofeu 3, Deeney 4
Subs: Gray (for Sema, 45) 4, Cleverley (for Deulofeu, 81) 0, Chalobah (for Hughes, 90) 0, Kabasele, Masina, Peñaranda, Gomes

Brighton and Hove Albion 0 Watford 0 (02/02/2019) 03/02/2019

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
6 comments

1. Contentment rarely breeds good art. Happiness, perhaps; ecstasy, certainly; not contentment. I think that’s fair, but I’m open to correction. I appreciate that being open to correction isn’t very 2019, but there we are.

At any rate, I can think of no Shakespeare plays in which, for example, a king governs his kingdom with gentle kindness, dishing out to his contented subjects runny scotch eggs and frothing tankards of mead (does mead froth?) with such generosity that nobody ever bothers to challenge his position and everyone just, you know, gets on fine and that, the end. The Rolling Stones didn’t sing about getting a genteel sufficiency of satisfaction. Every half-successful hip-hop artist has had to deal with the difficult point at which they’ve entirely lost touch with their roots and life has become thoroughly comfortable; the result is an absolutely vast sub-genre of rapping about eating freshly-prepared unicorn kidneys in a diamond-encrusted palace while receiving a ‘massage’ from Miss World but, like, feeling really lonely and vulnerable and numb on the inside.

2. Contentment and football don’t mix easily either. Or perhaps it’s just that contentment supports little in the way of headlines and arguments and gambling sponsorship. There are good times, there are bad times, there are good and bad times at the same time. It’s not often, though, that you look at your football club and receive in return a sense of general well-being, of a thing that’s conceivably as good as it could be and yet not (and there’s a difference) as good as it gets.

Looking in from a distance, it appears that we’re more or less in that place right now. There’s a remarkable sense of surety about Watford Football Club, one that seems to deflect outside attention like some kind of cloaking shield. Interlocking parts, cohesive whole; nothing to see here. There seems to be a clear relationship between, for instance, the 1881 collecting for the local food bank, the sense of collective purpose shown on the pitch and the ability of the owners to make actions speak much, much louder than words. It hasn’t always been so, and you don’t have to go more than a few months back to find a good degree of acrimony and resentment and frustration. It won’t always be so either; everyone wanted to be Charlton once, if you recall.

But for now, we know who we are, where we are, what to do. We have a thoroughly charming manager who answers the media’s enquiries as if a nice aunt has just asked if he’d like a second slice of battenberg. That manager appears to have spent the summer concluding that the air around a football club is clearer if your team doesn’t stink it up, and the football no longer has that sense of instinctively shrinking onto the back foot, of only being truly happy when it’s pouring quick-drying cement all over everything. It still has the potential to be one of the great seasons. Even if it falls short of that, it’s a rare moment when any club gets quite this much right, and so modestly.

3. Our hosts are in a slightly more precarious position, and are smarting from their midweek disintegration at Fulham, but have a similar number of reasons to be thankful.

Much as you want to win, there’s always something thrilling about being in someone else’s ground when a game that’s in the balance suddenly tips and the noise starts echoing around the stands. Sets the adrenaline going, makes eventual victory all the more vivid. The noise at the Amex still seems to carry with it something of what this club nearly became, of building bonfires and Hereford and all of that. It’s still there, the knowledge that none of this might’ve existed. The pre-match build-up offers somewhat one-sidedly edited highlights of previous meetings, and the big screen malfunctions to obscure half of the picture, which seems a fitting reminder of the sightlines from both the away corner at the Goldstone and the temporary seating at Withdean. It’s thirty years since I was a student here; more than twenty since Fans United. This is a brilliant ground for a proud city. We should all count our blessings more often.

4. That said, the first half is absolutely dire. We start well enough, composed in possession, secure in defence. But it rapidly becomes apparent that having gorged themselves on Haribo and thrown up all over the living room carpet on Tuesday night, Brighton are spending some time on the naughty step, learning their lesson. There will be no repeat, no opening up, no fun and games. They are absolutely sodding impenetrable. On the very rare occasions when we find a bit of space, it’s filled with a great rush of striped bodies before we can get our heads up and take advantage. We create a half-chance for Troy Deeney, who heads wide at the end of a fine, far-ranging move, but that’s really all we have to show for a lot of earnest shuffling around.

It’d be an exaggeration to say that Brighton have no interest in the other end, although that clearly isn’t their immediate priority. On their right, March and Gross offer the main threat, doubling up on a constantly raging Jose Holebas who, having seen off one attack quite superbly, flings his gloves to the ground in disgust at the concession of a corner. You suspect that if he ever made you a cuppa, he’d smash the mug onto the table in a great explosion, snarling “TEA!” through gritted teeth; you also suspect that he’s no fun when it comes to charades on Christmas Day. He’s a lot of fun on a football pitch, though, and this is a half in which you have to take your entertainment wherever you can find it. Dunk heads wide from a corner; Ben Foster makes his first save of the afternoon to claw out a header from Locadia as half-time approaches.

5. It’s a beautifully bright, crisp winter’s day. The snow is melting away everywhere but the peaks of the Downs. The sun gradually begins to set, casting lovely shades of light orange onto the arced roof of the whatever-it-is stand. The concrete under our feet, however, seems to have stored up the cold of a thousand years; the ice of ages. It takes about fifteen minutes for your feet to feel as if they’re standing in a shin-high freezing puddle, and at no point is the game enough to fully divert your attention from the prospect of losing contact with your toes permanently. I can still feel the chill in my bones twenty-four hours later.

The second half is more engaging. A bit, anyway; let’s not oversell it. That’s partly just because the end is getting nearer; each thing that happens threatens to become the thing that happened, to be final and decisive. It’s also partly because Brighton, after forty-five minutes of reminding themselves of what they’re good at, decide to give it a bit of a go, stepping forward ten or twenty yards and increasing the tempo. They know that it’s there to be won, even if they’re not prepared to be cavalier in winning it. Respect the point, as Big Sam would say.

That ought to help us. And yes…well, a bit. There are moments when we manage to get Will Hughes into positions where he can pick up second balls from the Deeney-Dunk-Duffy scraps, and those hold some promise. But Ken Sema is too preoccupied with helping out Jose Holebas, and Gerard Deulofeu isn’t involved in the game at all. I mean, it really isn’t his kind of contest, and nobody’s asking that he turn into Tommy Mooney, but he seems to accept his irrelevance all too readily. It’s all very well having a player with the quality to win a game in a second, but a great pile of unused seconds is no good to anyone, and we cut our losses eventually.

Our last attempt at coming up with an attacking formation that can trouble Brighton sees Andre Gray in support of Deeney and is best of the iterations, even if there’s still little to show for it. Hughes fires into the side netting; Gray is foiled by Dunk collapsing onto the ball with the suggestion of a surreptitious arm outstretched. Worth a shout, but it later turns out that he’s actually used his head to make the tackle, the absolute loon. From next season, we’ll all get to freeze our tits off while someone pores over the footage, so hooray for progress.

6. A point each is about right, then. And it’s obviously considerably more about right if you’re a Watford fan. By full-time, we’ve accumulated another small hatful of reasons to be thankful to Ben Foster: these were, for the most part, saves that you’d hope he’d make, in tipping over a drifting header from Locadia and blotting out the sunlight as Andone burst through in the dying minutes. The best of them is an improvised goal-line clearance to scramble an overhead kick from Duffy around the post, not least because he’d look a complete clown if, as is perfectly possible, he only succeeded in shovelling the ball into his own net. But he doesn’t. He remains a class act, in all respects.

Brighton are theoretically the better side, then, but all of the terrific things about this game are defensive and we contribute as many as they do. Jose Holebas has already been commended, but we get similarly committed, if less furious, shifts from the rest of the back four. Aside from a free-ish header for Glenn Murray from a set piece, we concede nothing lightly; the clean sheet isn’t fortunate just because our keeper pulled off some saves. It’s a battle of a game, to watch as well as to play in, and the central defenders of both sides command it. They do more to win it, we do enough not to lose it. Everyone’s happy enough when it’s over.

7. And everyone’s happy enough, full stop. Well, maybe not everyone: the chap next to me would, at the drop of a hat, compile you a chart run-down of which players are the most shit. But mostly. I’ve often wondered how it’d feel to be in this position, with little to fear and yet also relatively little to hope for; Burnley have rather popped the European dream bubble, after all. I’d assumed that it’d be a tedious existence, a kind of footballing limbo, eventually yearning for any kind of release. Maybe it will be, eventually. But for now, it’s rather pleasant, isn’t it? Top half of the top flight, no drama. Dreadful game, minor frostbite, doesn’t matter.

Contentment. All is not well with the world. This bit, though…well, this bit is just fine.

Cup run’d be good, though, eh?

*Foster 5*, Holebas 4, Cathcart 4, Mariappa 4, Janmaat 4, Cleverley 3, Capoue 3, Hughes 3, Sema 2, Deulofeu 1, Deeney 2 Subs: Gray (for Deulofeu, 70) 3, Quina (for Sema, 81) 0, Masina, Peñaranda, Britos, Chalobah, Gomes