RAMBLE: Watford -v- Wednesday

RAMBLE: Watford -v- Wednesday

This was my first Wednesday game since December 2013, my 20th overall in nine visits, and to say I was looking forward to it was an understatement.

Yes, it was away to the league leaders, and one those pesky teams, like Derby, who always seem to be beat us, and quite resoundingly so.

Yes, I’d gone to four away matches in the Championship before today to watch us lose them all and concede 14 goals along the way.

And yes, we had absolutely nothing to play for, whereas Watford, having sealed promotion to hyperinflation land already, still had the honour (and trophy) of winning the Championship to play for.

But in the days leading up to the match, this feeling of “we can do it, we can actually do it” gradually built in me.

It’s what keeps us football fans – and humans, really – going: We’re much better at remembering the good things than we are remembering the bad things.

So with thoughts of away spankings waning, I was starting to feel, well, not confident, but at ease about the game, despite the odds so heavily stacked against us.

It was also a big day for me: My son Svend, who just turned 2.5, was going to the first football match of his life, and as well as my wife, my parents in law were going as well to sample some proper, English football atmosphere.

I’d been so lucky that the ever- and overly friendly Seán had gone out of his way to secure the four tickets we needed.

Despite that gradually building confidence about the game, on match day, even at the best of times, everything’s a bit bipolar and tense.

The British rail network. Usually bad. Worse on a bank holiday.

The British rail network. Usually bad. Worse on a bank holiday.

So when signal vandalism meant our train to Watford got cancelled, I got a bit moody and flouncy, and, to myself at least, had some choice words with the absolutely shoddy excuse for a rail services that the UK has.

I’ve not once ridden a train over here without issue, and it’s as though everyone else has apathetically accepted that’s just the way it is, as well as the great expense of the tickets.

Mind you, Denmark’s train services are not in anyway good, but they still make the UK’s look ka developing country’s.

But when you’ve got a two-and-a-half year-old bundle of energy and happiness with you, moodiness thankfully subsides a bit quicker these days, and onwards we went with the London Overground. We even managed to see Wembley with its arch on the way there.

A train with a view...of an arch

A train with a view…of an arch

My son Svend was well aware we were going to a football match. Until last week he also thought he’d be playing with “de blå ugler” (“the blue owls”) as he calls them.

The early kick-off time was a bit of a bother, as it was right in the middle of nap time. So when we got to Watford eventually, the others took him for a walk in the stroller for a nap, while I went into The Moon Under Water in High Street to meet up with Chris and Craig from Owlsalive.

They were there with Jordan and a friend of theirs I missed the name (I’m crap with names) [Ed – Adam!] Always good to meet good people and to tuck into a good football discussion. Time flew, and the early kick-off time approached quickly.

The others came back to meet up, and we had to wake the little ‘un, so all the way to the stadium he was perched atop his grandfather’s shoulders looking a bit like a mix of a groggy boxer and a mole above ground.

You know when he’s like that, because he doesn’t say owt, when he’s normally yapping your ear off.

Short walk to the ground, and a proper English one at that: Sat, hid almost, inside a residential area, and a good feel to it once inside.

Vicarage Road: Tucked away in the sidestreets.

Vicarage Road: Tucked away in the sidestreets.

A nice little compact football ground; quaint, provincial and not unlike something from the set of Wallace and Gromit.

We struggled a bit to find our seats, but all the noise of the away fans – music to my ears – was too much for my sleepy little son, and my wife had to exit the stadium with him after the first 10 minutes.

I said to her afterwards that his first game should probably have been at Hillsborough, in the South Stand, where the bigger risk would probably be him falling asleep again rather than any noises scaring him.

I just hope he hasn’t been scar(r)ed away from football. Indoctrination’s a tricky business: Push too hard, and you’ll only provoke a counter reaction. Don’t push hard enough, and they’ll lose interest.

I don’t think any of the others expected quite such a ferocious at atmosphere, nor such a thorough education in the less glittering parts of the Queen’s English.

But I felt like I had come home again, there among fellow Wednesdayites, warts and all.

The line-up was announced while we were still in the pub, and it did have a few surprises:

The best second choice 'keeper in the division?

The best second choice ‘keeper in the division?

Chris Kirkland was in goal instead of PFA Team of the Year and Wednesday player of the year Keiren Westwood, who, it was later revealed, had a calf injury that had flared up again. Have we ever had two such capable goalkeepers in our squad at the same time?

It’s definitely a luxury, and a rare one in this Wednesday squad, and no-one can blame Kirkland the slightest if he wants to leave for first team Championship football in the summer.

It’s a huge credit to Stuart Gray’s much-heralded rapport with the players that he’s managed to keep Kirkland happy warming the bench. And there’s little doubt in my mind that Kirkland’s mere presence has pushed Westwood to be as impressive as he has been this season.

The only problem with Westwood’s form is it will have alerted Premier League clubs; Hull City, if they stay up, could be the place for him, as he won’t be near-guaranteed first team football at most other Premier League clubs.

It will, without a doubt, be this summer’s biggest signing if we do manage to keep hold of him. If not, we have a very able deputy in Kirkland, and that’s reason enough not to let him go too early in the transfer window.

Vermijl: Yet to make the full back berth his own

Vermijl: Yet to make the full back berth his own

I was looking forward to seeing Marnick Vermijl at right back; you always expect a certain rub of class from players who have come through Manchester United’s academy.

Lewis Buxton again stood in as centre back, and it might just be that it’s exactly that versatility more than his performances that will earn him a new one-year deal.

His injury record is only getting worse, though, and due to that we mustn’t be anywhere near depending on him next year; he would, ideally, be essentially third choice, and I’m not sure that would be fair on such a good servant to the club.

He fought through the worst Wednesday fans can offer, that acidic, toxic and vitriolic outpour of hatred almost that some players, sometimes it seems almost at random, get subjected to.

Buxton was definitely a victim of that early in his Wednesday career. I still remember the outpour coming his way at the Lane, when I was there for the 3-2 defeat (where we were 3-0 down at half time from, among others, a Buxton own goal).

He recovered from that, and when injury free, has been the most solid and consistent, and at times also our best player. So it’d be fitting if we give him a chance to wind down a good career at a club where he’ll be trusted with a first team berth – he won’t at ours, mainly due to his injury record.

Lees: A rocky in stormy seas

Lees: A rocky in stormy seas

Tom Lees, not the poor man’s but the lower middle class man’s John Terry, partnered Buxton today, and will be the rock our new defence will be built around next season.

As good as he is, he does need good defenders around him to be effective, which the partial collapse of our sturdy defence as the season has worn on demonstrates. He’s great at making those last gasp saving tackles or muscling attackers off the ball. But he’s at his most effective with a more refined, positionally intelligent partner next to him.

Glenn Loovens has played that part well ever since joining. But, as with Buxton, Loovens’ injury record means we can’t rely on him to play 46, or maybe even 30-35 league matches a season, so there are definite question marks as to whether we have the next season’s partner for Lees or not.

Helan: Has the young Frenchman gone backwards this season?

Helan: Has the young Frenchman gone backwards this season?

At left back Jeremy Helan lined up. Looking it up, I’m a bit surprised he’ll only be 23 next week.

He was very raw, when he first joined, and we signed him because he had potential for more. But how much has he really progressed in his three odd years with us? Not a lot, and certainly not enough if we are ever to rely on him as one of the first names on the team sheet.

It’d be a massive gamble to plan with him as first choice left back next season. And is he even a left back?

In midfield we seemed to line up with three defensive midfielder in Felipe Melo, Jose Semedo and Kieran Lee.

The former I hadn’t seen much of, and I looked forward to seeing whether he showed signs of being someone to build a midfield around next season.

Both Semedo and Lee’s contract will run out in the summer, and especially the latter has done enough to earn a new one.

Lee: Developed a handy knack of popping up in the box this season

Lee: Developed a handy knack of popping up in the box this season

Lee has developed his game this season and added a Frank Lampard-like knack of running late into the box to get on the end of crosses or toe home rebounds.

He has disappeared from games at times, and I’m not convinced he’s yet dominant enough on as well as off the ball to be the midfield conductor for us. But he’s by far the best midfielder on a permanent contract we have, and one who’ll only enhance his game and influence with better players around him.

It’s not quite Wim Jonk with Peter Atherton and Ian Nolan, but Lee’s passing and runs have at times been on a different wavelength to the other players.

Semedo is one of those, who is still too one-dimensional, too much inside his comfort zone of hassling, harrying and winning the ball. Once he’s won it and is on the ball, though, it’s as though he draws a blank and runs into a mental blind street.

Semedo: Limited but deserves a new deal

Semedo: Limited but deserves a new deal

Obvious counter attacks are smothered in their infancy this way. On balance, though, I would still give him another year. Apart from his talismanic powers, there will be rough and tumble games, where scrappy feels like an inaccurate description, which should be like fresh meat before the lions for Semedo.

We need him for that, and to also push those in his position, and be part of instilling a new positive and professional culture at the club.

Up front Stuart Gray had chosen the fit again Will Keane, who we’ve sorely missed, and Caolan Lavery on one side and Chris Maguire on the other.

Lavery has a lot of potential, but still carries the inconsistencies of youth. He’s one of those who needs more hair on his chest and battle experience, but I felt Gray was right to start him in a game where the result was of little consequence. It’d be good experience for him against the team that had won the most points so far this season.

Depending on how many strikers we add next season, I think it’d do Lavery the world of good to join an ambitious and promotion-chasing League 1 side or maybe even one of the bottom third Championship clubs on a season long loan next year and get some regular football under his belt.

Maguire: Selfish and wasteful

Maguire: Selfish and wasteful

Chris Maguire…where to begin? I don’t like him. At all. And I readily admit that my opinion of him may be clouded by that. But if ever there was a player, who is a symbol of the tough years we as a club have been through, it’s him.

When you’re a beggar, you can’t be a chooser, as the saying goes. So, destitute and desperate, we had to settle for Chris Maguire as our “creative outlet”. A meassure of our limitations more than anything.

And all the while he has carried an attitude of arrogance that his abilities have never backed up, and always focused on glory for himself rather than the good of the team. I feel he, as much as any, has been at the root of our problems going forward. Some will argue “at least he tries something”.

I looked at Opta’s statistics for Championship players (published on whoscored.com and squawka.com) a few weeks ago to see if the question many have asked this season could be resolved: Does our problem lie chiefly in creating chances or converting them?

Well, we’ve had the 12th most shots in the division, and the fourth most shots inside the six-yard box. So plenty of chances, and in advantageous positions at that.

How about conversion then? Only nine per cent of our shots inside the penalty area have been converted into goals – no other team in the Championship has been so poor. Quite resoundingly, it seems, conversion is the problem.

Why do I mention that in relation to Chris Maguire? Well, at that time he’d had 70 shots on goal from outside the penalty box – only six Championship players have more, and Maguire has scored just two of those. That’s one in every 35 long shots from his feet. I think even Jermaine Johnson would be embarrassed about that record. It also represents an enormous loss of possession in a good position.

Further to that, Maguire “trying something” had seen him deliver 67 key passes but just two assists, and him being dispossessed 90 times – 8th most in the Championship (Nuhiu is 5th with 95). And his 87 miscontrolled balls is the 10th most in the division (Nuhiu’s 113 puts him 2nd). So suffice to say I didn’t expect a lot from him today, and I’ll be pleased if we don’t give him a new contract.

He might be shocked when Championship clubs in their droves don’t come in for him, as he clearly believes he’s better than he actually is. But he might do well as undisputed star striker number one at a League 1 club.

The line-up suggested a defensive set-up, despite the three recognised strikers included, as Maguire and Lavery wide would surely drop deep as wide midfielders.

THE MATCH

Sadly it all started out as you could have feared: Watford in control, bossing midfield and with a spring in their step.

We struggled to contain them, and Watford’s aggressive pressing especially put our midfielders under pressure, struggling to find a team mate to pass to.

So all too predictably, when we did get the ball, and with our defence pushed deep, there was a country mile from the back to the front for us, and the inevitable hoofing began.

That only increased the pressure put on us, as we weren’t anywhere near winning neither the first nor the second ball, and so Watford came right back at us.

Only five minutes into the match Watford had carved their way into our six-yard box. In a pattern that would be repeated all too often, the hopeless Helan was wildly out of sync with the rest of our defence, and with no pressure on the passer, it was an easy ball inside of Helan to their winger.

Deeney caused problems throughout the first half

Deeney caused problems throughout the first half

Only one of those trademark strong, blocking tackles of Tom Lees’ prevented a goal – it was a wonderful piece of defensive skill, and right in front of us Wednesday fans.

Just five minutes later Watford again found themselves clean through, through the centre this time.

The cut-from-raw-granite Troy Deeney ploughed like a bulldozer at a building site and Kirkland, arms flailing whisked off his line quickly to close him down.

He was quickly upon the Watford man and Deeney, whose appearance didn’t exactly suggest a technically gifted player, tried to take the ball around Kirkland, but too late: he stumbled before Kirkland arrived, and our luxury back up angled Deeney perfectly and denied him a clean shot on goal.

Danger averted, while the otherwise quiet, morose even, locals finally made a sound around the sold out ground appealing for a penalty.

We were in good position to judge it, and I think the referee made the correct call: Deeney was already falling and on his way down, when he lumbered into Kirkland. Deeney’s protests and appeals as much out of embarrassment for letting a golden chance evaporate than anything else.

Three minutes later Deeney showed a nasty side, as Kirkland went for a high, looping ball. In what looked like retaliation and frustration, Deeney flung his humongous frame into Kirkland. I say into, as he showed no intention of winning the ball.

Kirkland had the wind knocked out of him, but was thankfully okay. He’d already made one spectacular goal-saving save, and it wasn’t going to be the last.

We struggled going forward and went into blind alley after blind alley, partly because we were so slow in moving the ball around that Watford never had any troubles in adjusting their defensive organisation.

Helan gets himself stuck down another blind alley

Helan gets himself stuck down another blind alley

Helan was as guilty as any, and clearly over-matched for pace, he had no idea how to go past his man. It was like watching Road Runner suddenly have a cage lifted down around him.

Watford passed and probed and looked in complete control. They were clearly good, and above all confident. But it was frustrating to watch Wednesday’s players down tools so easily.

We stood several yards off their players giving them all the time in the world, and when we pressed it was individually, meaning Watford could easily pass their way around to team mate in all the space we afforded them.

With no real pace being in play from us, Watford kept a defensive line just behind the centre of the pitch, and with no threat from pace to the space behind them, that only made their grasp on proceedings even firmer.

22 minutes in, Watford were awarded a free kick 25 yards out. A good position, and the sort of place from which Lewis McGugan has been effective for us. The Watford-owned player wasn’t on the pitch today, and despite it feeling every bit like they’d score from it, it was sent straight into the wall, almost Llera-esque.

Again we failed to get a hold of the rebound and quick as a flash Watford had the ball in the box, and a scramble only failed to end in Watford drawing first blood because, who else, Tom Lees again threw his body in the way, blocking the shot from not far out and getting the ball away.

A quarter of the game gone, and Watford had already had three big chances that teams normally score from more often than not. Somehow it was still 0-0; I say somehow, but “somehow”‘s name was really Chris Kirkland and Tom Lees.

It felt overwhelmingly like they’d score any minute, though, and it was almost as though our players couldn’t wait to get the seemingly inevitable overwith.

And sure enough, on 25 minutes, we were finally breached: Troy Deeney was, again, clean through, and this time had the sense to blast it before Kirkland charged him.

But the gangly ‘keeper made a fantastic point blank reflex save, at least the equal of one of the many similar saves Kieran Westwood’s have made this season.

Vydra celebrates putting the Hornets ahead

Vydra celebrates putting the Hornets ahead

It was a very short-lived escape, and before our fans could applaud Kirkland’s spectacularity, the looping rebound in the centre of the box was poached upon by Vydra, who had an easy header to make it 1-0.

No Wednesday player was close to him, having all stopped at Kirkland’s save while Vydra anticipated the rebound and was richly rewarded. Instinctively we all willed the assistant referee to our left to flag Vydra offside, but given time to reflect, he probably wasn’t.

The goal and lead was no less than what they deserved, sadly, and the fluttering of butterflies I’d had in my stomach in the hours leading up to the game were replaced by something resembling a knot: if this was allowed to continue, it could end up an absolute rout of us, and the memories of conceding 5, 6, 7 and even 8 away from home came to the fore.

I felt I wasn’t alone in my thinking. The Wednesday fans tried to sing those memories and the bad feeling away in an intial fit of defiance, directed as much at the suddenly awake from the slumber home fans as at our players. But as we kept our act of living training cones for Watford’s procession going, our fans got anxious.

Batman is a Wednesdayite?

Batman is a Wednesdayite?

To my right fancy dress Batman was having nothing of our bad play, and you’d never know from the films, but he has quite the selection of choice swear words in his locker.

He was getting more hoarse for every barrage shouted, and I hoped against hope he’d do a “I’M BATMAN” as his voice was now perfect for it, but sadly no.

The other type of reaction, more in line with my own, came from fancy dress Disco Stu to my right, slouched and silenced in apathy and looking every bit like he’d like nothing better than moonwalk his way out of the stadium.

The cheerfully humming Watford machine continued unabated, as wave after wave crashed onto, and, more often than not, through our desperate defence.

Our inaction and lack of pressure by now made Troy Deeney, every bit old-fashioned lower league target man, look like Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Not content having plenty of chances himself, he was critically involved in just about everyone of those far too numerous Watford attacks.

On 30 minutes Deeney put Vydra through on the outside of Vermijl, struggling nearly as much as Helan on the opposite side, with the inalert Belgian playing Vydra onside. The angle thankfully became narrow, and Vydra sent it into the sidenetting to a collective sigh of relief from the away end.

Just three minutes later, and Deeney was at it again playmaking, now also strolling around with that “I’m cocky but my ability more than backs it up”-attitude of Ibrahimovic. Another throughball, another one on one – and, thank god, another miss, this time a shanked effort that went well wide of the far post.

Half time was still 15 minutes away, and we looked desperate for a break, for a chance to regroup and salvage some pride if nothing else from a game that had long escaped us.

Incredibly it was still just 1-0, so if the holes Watford were flushing through could be plugged, maybe we could eat ourselves into the game, bit by bit.

It was by no means the first time this season we’d found ourselves blown in the face by a hurricane, and our recovery of those situations was quite encouraging.

Lavery's season came to a premature end as he was replaced before half time

Lavery’s season came to a premature end as he was replaced before half time

Gray had seen enough, and on 37 minutes hauled the invisible Lavery off to be replaced by Atdhe Nuhiu. Both Lavery, Maguire and Keane had been so far away from the ball when we were on it.

With the two former barely clearing the height of garden gnomes, the long balls launched in their general direction was gefundenes fressen for a Watford defence who towered over those two.

In the 10 odd minutes that remained of the first half Nuhiu showed more fight and willingness to run than the rest of our players had mustered in the previous 37 minutes combined, and he desperately tried to get the others going.

We continued to be outclassed, though, and even Lees was being crushed in the air by the He-Man figure Deeney.

On 41 minutes Watford had a fantastic attack that looked like something out of a Fifa console game: 10-12 quick, crisp passes moved the ball forwards from the right side to our weak spot the left. Helan was caught in no man’s land again, and looking all the while like a dog who can’t figure out if the ball had been thrown or not. Watford blazed the finish from the cross over, so, again, we lived another day.

It was to go from the terrible to the attrocious for Helan, whose Peter Gilbert impersonation in excrutiaging detail right in front of us. He was even oversprinted, despite a head start, in one of Watford’s attacks.

Then on the stroke of half time, having finally won the ball, he ignored the passing options in front of him in midfield, and began dribbling the ball from inside our area and out. Predictably, Watford closed him down and with no way for Helan to try and run past them, they won the ball off him and had a scuffed shot that, like all their shots, they really should’ve done better with.

When I began playing organised football at the age of 8, one of the very first things we learned, and which the coach would scream again and again, was “don’t dribble with the ball in your defensive zone”.

So it was like being back in my innocent, countryside childhood, but instead of my coach then screaming at me, it was Kirkland who went absolutely ballistic with Helan and gave him an ear and a half’s worth for what seemed half a minute. Helan, head sunk, trudged off without reply.

Gray had plenty to think about after a poor first half

Gray had plenty to think about after a poor first half

Finally, half time was here.

Half our fans were venting their anger at what Gray himself after the game described as perhaps our worst half of football this season.

The other half was stood wondering, at a loss, how we were still only one goal down to a Watford side we’d made to look like World Champions.

My mother-in-law exited the stadium at half time to be with my wife and son. She’d be the first to admit she knows nothing much about football, but she still had the analysis of our first half down to a tee when she said we were rubbish and not involved in the game much.

Call me an old, grumpy man (actually, please don’t, it still hurts too much), but I didn’t like the tossers setting off flares in the concourse at half time. I’m all for atmosphere, but why set off a flare inside? Neither big nor clever.

And it’s a little pathetic when there are more mobile phones in the air, filming themselves, than there are arms and hands cheering along to the singing. Not much being in the moment, but plenty of “I must share with the world that I’m being a bit of a tosser at a football match and gain the validation I so richly deserve”.

So I ho-hummed, gave them my best stern and disapproving dad stare (still a learner at this stage, obviously), and squeezed myself back into the ground.

Another half, another chance. At least we felt that way for a few minutes, but then a simple lob over the top sent the human hummer Deeney through.

Buxton showed great bravery in throwing himself into Deeney just as he seemed set to make it 2-0 with a poweful finish, and the ball fizzed out for a corner. Buxton was left sprawled on the ground, as he’d injured himself in that excellent last ditch tackle.

I was beginning to fret about our lack of defensive cover, but thankfully Buxton got up and was able to soldier on.

Helan picked up exactly where he left off: An underweighted back pass meant Kirkland had to rush off his line for the umpteenth time, and he barely got there as he had to block the shot the Watford player gifted with the ball managed to get away.

Nuhiu now seemed pissed off, and he tried desperately to get involved, to get others involved and to make the others more urgent in their actions.

He began coming deep to receive the ball into feet with his back to the goal. It meant we kept the ball longer, and it didn’t just come straight back at us. We, very slowly, seemed to invite ourselves into the match now.

Keane offered enough to suggest he may have a future at S6

Keane offered enough to suggest he may have a future at S6

Will Keane showed his potential when he won the ball in the centre, and without options he could pass to set off on a run through the centre, passing two defenders before intelligently laying it off to Maguire.

I like the look of Keane, and we could do lot worse than securing him on a season-long loan for next year. But the attack fizzed out as Maguire on the right, ignoring the onrushing Nuhiu and Keane in the centre, made one of those infuriating Maguire decisions: He neither shot nor crossed and the ball went well over goal for a goal kick. Argh, I give up.

This, our best opening of the match, came about because Keane had dropped deeper.

Nuhiu began doing the same more regularly too, and it slowly the game began changing ever so slightly, as we held the ball for longer and longer periods. Our players, battered sideways in the first half, began retreating from their shell and grow in confidence.

Whatever Gray had said at half time, we were eating ourselves back into it, bite by bite, simple pass by simple pass. Around the hour mark the game definitely tilted in our direction, maybe partly because Watford were already celebrating in their minds and going along in second gear.

Nuhiu’s attitude now seemed infectious, and we were closer to their players who now, with a lot less time on the ball, didn’t get close to looking like the World Champions we had made them look like in the first 45.

On 60 minutes Maguire was gifted the ball on the right, and seemed set to go clean through. But out-paced quickly, he was shielded to the wing and the chance was gone.

The atmosphere certainly wasn’t, not in the away end anyway, where a sniff of a chance had the Wednesday fans in full voice again, even Batman and Disco Stu.

We continued to stay on the ball for a long time at a time, and there was purpose, concentration and movement off the ball now.

65 minutes in, Lees was allowed to come out with the ball, probably because he’d hoofed it whenever given time prior to that. Instead, and perhaps to avoid the misunderstood long ball to the head of Nuhiu, the Kosovar-Austrian dropped almost as deep as the centre circle, and Lees sent a hard pass straight into his feet.

What followed was a wonderful flowing move checking sideways, Nuhiu flicked the ball first time to an onrushing Kieran Lee, who at speed chipped it into the path of Keane. He had made a great striker’s run inside, but unfortunately had his shot blocked, and Kieran Lee couldn’t quite connect properly with the rebound. So close.

All the action was in front of the away fans now, and Nuhiu was the game-changer. We were playing considerably faster now, and the big man was a big part of it, and suddenly Lee and Keane found themselves in on the action as well.

We weren’t out of the woods yet, though, and nearly crumbled as yet another throughball on 70 minutes saw Kirkland rush off to save his third one on one of the match.

He was playing a blinder here, and every bit as good as Westwood.

Vermijl had an unfortunate forray that nearly cost us on the counter, when, as he dribbled, the ball just sort of rolled away from him and into the feet of an incredulous Watford player who checked for a second and then launched into the space Vermijl had left on the right of defence, and the Belgian didn’t track back quickly.

Wednesday battled manfully to get back in the game

Wednesday battled manfully to get back in the game

The move seemed to signal our sudden flurry of about 15 minutes ebbing out, and our players definitely had an air off seeing out the game after that.

After 76 minutes Gray made a double substitution. I was annoyed when I saw he took Keane and Lee off. Why, when they were such a big part of our good play?

Fair enough, Keane would be knackered having only recently returned to training, but I couldn’t get my head around the decision to take of Lee.

It might be he’d petered out more than many of the others, and he did just have a few bad passes and possession losses leading up to the substitution. But I thought Melo or Semedo were more obvious candidates for replacement.

On came Isgrove, even shorter than Maguire, and Stevie May. I have a gut feeling Stevie May could come very good next season, but I struggle to back it up. His composure has, at times, been shoddy, and he’s too easy for defenders to shuffle off the ball.

There was a landmark event in the 79th as, from my recollection, that was the first time Jeremy Helan managed to block a cross.

Watford, still in second or third gear, assumed the mantle again, perhaps a little reluctantly, and as the minutes wore on their sedated fans finally clapped a little with the prospect of the divisional should scores stay as they were.

Watford were happy to see the game out with their fragile, but strong enough, lead, and we didn’t seem too bothered to interfere.

Gone was the urgency, the small runs, the checking and pressing, and our players most on the ball were the back four passing sideways slowly to each other. You’d almost imagine they were playing to secure a draw.

With 90 minutes just two minutes away, one Watford fan had a case of premature celebration.

We’d just won a free kick about 30 yards in a decent enough position. Then this man, looking all the way an adult version of internet phenomenon the Star Wars kid, staged a one-man pitch invasion.

I’ve rarely seen anyone as completely sedated by alcohol, and it took four stewards to drag him away. In all it took about a minute, but the referee blew sharply for the resumption of play once the drunken tosser had passed the sideline.

Watford hadn’t quite snapped back into it, it seemed and the probing free kick come cross, was half heartedly cleared only as far as just outside the edge of the box.

A Wednesday player, and I missed who, kicked it back into “the mixer” over his own head, about three or four players, half of them Wednesday, went for the header on the edge of the six yard box, and nobody really won it.

The ball, instead, just seemed to bounce straight up into the air off the head off one, possibly more, of all those going for the header.

He shoots, he dares...

He shoots, he dares…

That’s when it was time to Dare to Nuhiu.

The ball came down and just before it bounced off the surface, every Wednesday fan seemed to realise Nuhiu was turning from having faced away from goal when he went into that melee of headers, to now facing the goal.

Being 6 foot 2 myself, but possibly in a spot worse form (okay, a lot) than Nuhiu, I know how painful it is to turn a big body around quickly. And it was almost like watching an ancient wooden trebuchet of catapult winding up to shoot, creaking loudly all the way.

Then, finally, he’d turned round and with the ball coming back off the ground, he unleashed a sideways volley that fooled ‘keeper and defender alike, and finally, FINALLY, rustled the netting of the goal.

To say the away end erupted would almost be an understatement.

Having been so completely out of the game, expecting a(nother away) rout, we had done it, we’d only gone and done it, equalising against all odds and seemingly out of nowhere.

Silencing the critics?

Silencing the critics?

Everyone went beserk, and I managed to pull a stomach muscle in the celebrations (adding it to the knee injury I sustained at Huddersfield away in our League 1 promotion season).

Quick as a flash, the chant, almost spat out of ours mouths, equal parts spite and schadenfreude, rained onto the perplexed-looking Watford fans from the 2,200 Wednesdayites in one voice:

“They’re top of the league, they’re top of the league, AFC Bournemouth, they’re top of the league.”

It was a wonderful moment. There’s something to be said for beautiful goals, play and celebrating dominance. But it almost feels sweeter, and it’s much more a base feeling, when you go and rob a point off a team with what was quite possibly our first proper shot on target all game.

The Wednesday fans weren’t the only ones going beserk.

Nuhiu was letting it all come out, one big outpuring of emotion, and defiantly turned his back and pointed his thumbs towards his name on the back of the shirt.

A goal that meant nothing to out season meant everything for a few minutes

A goal that meant nothing to out season meant everything for a few minutes

No translation needed, this was our perhaps most disputed player (and topscorer) making his point. And having turned towards the centre circle, he changed his mind and went back for another identical celebration.

Pure emotion, and a lovely moment.

As he turned away from the adulation (grudging from some, don’t think I didn’t see you…) the second time, he fell to his knees and pointed to the sky in a quiet moment with two or three team mates.

That goal meant the world to him, and it’s hard not to think he’d suffered a family bereavement or similar recently.

It was the most Atdhe Nuhiu of Adthe Nuhiu goals.

There’s some bizarre genius to mishitting the shot ever so slightly, so it loops over the keeper and defender and into the goal touching the underside of the bar ever so slightly.

Watching that was like watching an albatross land: majestic, soaring beauty coming in, and then an almighty scramble getting to the ground, but down it went.

And into the net Adthe’s shot went.

The celebrations went on for an absolute age

The celebrations went on for an absolute age

After the very intense celebrations in the stands as well as on the pitch, it was hard to not nearly think that him mishitting the shot was all intended, part of a genius move to wrong-foot ‘keeper and defender and lure the ball over the line.

That Atdhe Nuhiu is like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, in complete control over every blade of grass and movement in the ground.

He almost makes it look that way – and then he’ll mishit a simple five-yard pass, or miss the goal inside the six-yard box when scoring looked easier than missing.

There’s nothing mundane, nothing middle of the road about him.

It’s either or with big Atdhe. The exquisite and the ridiculous. And you can’t actually believe he does the former, when he does the latter too, and vice versa.

He’s our gladiator, always seemingly as close to the lion den as he is to the glory of Rome.

He’s too fun a player for us to give up on. By all means, if we’re serious about threatening the top six next year, he won’t be a starter for us – we’d need someone more consistent, reliable and above all clinical than Nuhiu.

But there’s something of the unspoiled about him that’ll get you in a lather and tearing the remnants of your hair in frustration one second, and cooing with delight the next.

And in a very different way than, say, a Jermaine Johnson.

I guess my point, if there is one, is that Nuhiu makes football fun. It means the world to him to play; that’s plain for everyone to see. And while not everything he does looks good, or even is good all the time, he has a knack of making those around him better.

Barring a dramatic improvement in his composure in front of goal, he won’t be in our team regularly. But every great team had not so great players in them whose function was, basically, to make the sum equal more than the parts.

Many of those successful teams have, often to their chagrin, tried to replace this supposedly sub-standard part of the team.

That is one of the beauties of football, though: A team of the best 11 players simply won’t win every time they’re playing (something especially fans of national teams often struggle with).

You can be worse footballers than those you’re playing against, but still win, because every one of the 11 on the pitch dependent on the others. You’re more than just you, and when you get the combination of players right, the sum can be so much more than the parts.

Love him or loathe him, 'Atty' has been our nearest thing to a talisman this season

Love him or loathe him, ‘Atty’ has been our nearest thing to a talisman this season

When I see Nuhiu play, the player that perhaps most leaps to mind is Teddy Sheringham. If there was ever a player, who made his teams better without being spectacular in any way himself, it’d be Sheringham.

But Nuhiu, with his warts and all, makes football feel genuine and fun, and doesn’t have the appearance of a guy simply doing a ridiculously over-priced and hideously calculated job in an entertainment business bricking itself someone somewhere at some point realises the emperror isn’t clothed all that much.

Back to the match. We weren’t finished, and as added time began, Watford were all of a sudden in a hurry to get all three points, while we looked just as likely to suddenly take all three points.

For all the lack of urgency from both sides in the last 15 minutes, suddenly there was electricity on the pitch with everyone in a frenzy to decide the game.

Semedo made what looked an ill-timed two footed tackle and for my money was lucky to escape with a yellow card.

We moved the ball about purposely now, and you could feel the suspense every time we came forward.

Suddenly our fans were expecting things to happen, and caught up in the tension only 15 minutes of tedium switched to urgency in an instant can create.

Maguire stayed very wide to stretch the pitch, which he had done for quite a while actually. He’d received a few good diagonal passes, one of them an absolute peach from Kieran Lee when he was still on the pitch. We still did that, and Maguire looked a lot more dangerous than he had earlier. He put in a very decent cross, and suddenly Stevie May was completely unmarked at the back post, but, agony, a very heavy first touch saw him lose the ball to the defender.

May: Had an opportunity to end the season on a high

May: Had an opportunity to end the season on a high

A composed and confident striker on the roll would kept that ball to his body like velcro and struck hard on the second touch, and there’s a very real chance it would’ve been a goal.

Watford were throwing everyone and everything forward, and Kirkland again had to show his shotstopping skills with a wonderful save at full stretch (so something like 3 metres…) from a piledriver shot from distance.

WATFORD, ENGLAND - MAY 02:  Daniel Tozser of Watford tries to take a last minute corner as fans wait to invade the pitch during the Sky Bet Championship match between Watford and Sheffield Wednesday at Vicarage Road on May 2, 2015 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Watford’s Tozser could barely take the corner owing to the massed throngs

The ensuing corner saw Gomes, the Watford ‘keeper join the attack, and he got close to the first one which we cleared for another corner. Time ticking away, Watford were desperate, and Gomes stayed up in our box.

As the corner came in from their left, we got a head to it at the near post and cleared it. Everyone looked intently for a Wednesday player to pick it up with the goal gaping.

And what never seems to quite happen for us, suddenly did: Isgrove got the ball! Go on, go on!!

Quick as a flash he was off down the centre of the pitch, and a Watford man chased him the best he could, but Isgrove clearly had the upper hand pacewise.

With the Watford man still trying to catch him as Isgrove was on the verge of entering the last third, the stewards apparently could no longer contain the Watford fans, who’d left their seats, scaled the advertising hoardings and now stood ready, waiting like a sprinter for the starting gun of the referees full time whistle.

Isgrove breaks with the ref yet to blow his whistle...

Isgrove breaks with the ref yet to blow his whistle…

It all happened very quickly, granted, but throughout the game I don’t recall having a problem hearing the referee’s whistle, even at the other end of the pitch from where I was stood.

But I swear I didn’t hear anything out of his whistle before the first hundred or so Watford fans had entered the pitch.

The Watford player chasing Isgrove hadn’t either, that’s for sure – why would he have been chasing Isgrove as if his life depended on it..?

So I’m left to assume that the referee saw the fans rushing the pitch while play was still ongoing, and made a scandalous decision to blow for full time.

The correct decision would’ve been to blow for an immediate halt to play and temporary abandonment of the game until the safety of the players could once again be guaranteed, and, barring that, a full abandonment of the game.

Isgrove was in the Watford half, with a clear pitch in front of him, before the ref blew for time

Isgrove was in the Watford half, with a clear pitch in front of him, before the ref blew for time

I do know a bit about this from when an idiot ran onto the pitch and tried to take out the referee in Denmark’s game against Sweden in 2007. The score was 3-3, Denmark having battled our way back from a 3-1 reverse.

The referee decided to halt play and order the players off the pitch, and 20 minutes later it was announced in the tannoy that there would be a full abandonment of the game. UEFA later decided to award Denmark a 3-0 defeat, and ordered to play the next two qualifiers 150 km away from Copenhagen.

Why should this be any different? Had it been anything other than a, for us, meaningless final match of the season, actions ought to be taken by the club. Because as I see it, Watford fans in panic spoiled our second goal, and hence a great win away at a promoted team, by simply running onto the pitch.

What sort of precedent does that set, if the FA or the Football League won’t censure Watford to the tune of a point loss, and a 3-0 win awarded to us (as well as a hefty fine for inadequate crowd control)?

It was a very weird atmosphere, then, as Watford fans streamed onto the pitch setting off flares, while we stood in the away end perplexed at what we’d just seen.

My dad in law and I decided to get out of the stadium before the exits got jammed, and it took a good, long while before the adrenaline of that finish to the game had subsided.

I was also no longer an ultra-jinx: In my fifth away game, we’d finally managed to avoid a loss (and should’ve had the win of course).

Much to my surprise and delight, none other than Lee Bullen had noticed my tweet about my terrible record watching Wednesday, especially away:

Bullen tweet

As I walked back into town to meet up with the rest of the family, I reflected that least we’d taken all the fizz out of Watford’s celebrations; the champagne corks sprang limply, while their big “CHAMPIONS”-sign had to be kept under cover for another time perhaps.

This functional, mechanic Watford team then had its functional and mechanical supporters have a functional and mechanical celebration of reaching the supposed promised land of football.

As I watched them there on the pitch, I couldn’t help thinking if, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, being there was as good as getting there.

Whether the goal was nothing, and the road everything. And whether we, as Wednesdayites, in that same situation some time in the future perhaps, would, under the feeling of immediate joy, also nurse a feeling of emptiness at having achieved the goal we set out for ourselves. Especially with the prospect of most probably losing more games than winning the season after promotion.

Of being someone’s last minute plus one at a big, lavish castle wedding, making up the numbers without feeling at home, and watching the bride and groom and the party with a deep sense of surreality. Not really having anything other than staying alive to fight for years on end.

Like being trapped in a mundane, unskilled job you’re happy enough about, because everyone else says the alternative would be so much worse.

This season might have been a window into that for us, with us trapped in the quicksanded mire of midtable mediocrity all season. Our highest finish in six years, and third highest in 15 years.

A proper pitch invasion...

A proper pitch invasion…

But none of the unbridled joy, rollercoaster ups and downs and ecstasy at the end of the promotion season from League One.

Were the wins as sweet, the defeats as sour, this season as they were then, despite the footballers clearly being better now?

Make no mistake: barring a replacement of most of these players, Watford will get absolutely crushed in the Premier League.

They’re head and shoulders above us, for sure, and they definitely shifted down a gear or two in the second half when they thought the odd goal was enough for them.

But they were unimpressive once we actually tried taking the game to them a little bit, displaying limitations of their own.

What about ourselves then? Well, we’re not there yet, and it will require a new right back, left back, centre back, central midfielder, right winger, left winger and striker if Chansiri’s ambitions are to be matched.

Yes, that essentially a new team, and haven’t we done okay this year? In some regards, yes, but we’re simply playing a different ball game next year than we have this.

The first indication of whether that will happen or not will be the retained list released in a few weeks. I don’t expect to find many names on it, but, in no particular order, Kirkland, Lee and Semedo need a new contract.

One thing’s for certain: This at times boring season, with its lack of incident, will now be replaced by the most interesting close and pre season in twenty years.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already looking forward to next year.

OWLS ALIVE circliar yeller SPACE

 

 

Peter
OwlsAlive
E-mail: admin@owlsalive.com

Twitter: @ploehmann and @OwlsAlive


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