There was much about Watford’s performance that was concerning but nothing terribly surprising, and nothing for which a clear solution presents itself. We knew that we were going into the season with a young side that was going to be dependent on senior players; we’ve already seen, in Cowie’s absence, the impact that removing one of those cogs can have on the whole shape of the side. More of the same today; Jordon Mutch and Stephen McGinn both had reasonable games in the middle of the park but the whole side missed the steadying influence, the aggression, the option, the foot-on-the-ball of John Eustace in the centre. Ross Jenkins might have reminded us of what he best offers, an option not really suited to pairing with the skipper for whom he’d have been the most obvious replacement but for his ankle injury.
We really ought to have won it, obviously, yet never quite did enough to turn theory into fact. Not the first time and probably not the last either, and it says much about the division that we can make a habit of such indecision while comfortably maintaining a position just below the playoffs. When we take our chances, we’re capable of being a frightening side; much more often, we’re poised on the brink, unable to make the leap. That’s all right, mind: such potential, even unrealised, is a great and unexpected improvement after recent struggles. People booed this, but they’re the people who’d do the same even if we’d hit the woodwork seventeen times, had nine realistic penalty appeals refused, three perfectly good goals disallowed, forced the keeper into an endless series of miracles, and had a shot cleared from a yard over the line. With nine men. In this instance, we were some way short of that, clearly. Some way short of previous seasons’ atrocities too, though.
This game was played just after England had narrowly defeated Scotland 2-1 on aggregate in a Euro 2000 qualifying playoff. After winning 2-0 at Hampden, England then lost 1-0 at home to the Scots in a poor performance in which Alan Shearer did very little. The predominant chant heard at the Vic during this game was ‘Where were you on Wednesday night’ a reference to the Newcastle striker’s performance at Wembley. Both Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor complained about the chant after the game, although later GT admitted that, having talked it over with his family, he was wrong to criticise the fans.
Leaving aside the ins and outs of what we want (and don’t want) our football club to be, Saturday’s match exposed the reality of our fight against relegation. Newcastle are rubbish, as are all of the teams knocking around in the bottom six or seven. Extremely expensive rubbish, like if you could go into Harrods and buy beautifully gift-wrapped boxes of rotting potato peelings, but rubbish nonetheless. There are many who expect them to climb effortlessly away from relegation peril almost as a matter of course. Not on this evidence.
It’s simple, regardless of whether you’re playing in the local pub league or the Premiership. If you score first, you light the opposition’s fuse wire…you then hold onto your possession, keep it tight and frustrate them even more. You protect your advantage with fearsome grit and determination and more importantly you keep that initial confidence and belief in yourself and your team mates. What you don’t do is panic and just throw it away.
Bobby Robson’s on our case, and the press is bemused. The Watford fans, offspring of The Family Club, gave Alan Shearer (our national hero!) a less than adoring welcome. Is it any surprise, when you saw what a miserable git he was? Petulent, never a smile. Every fair challenge bitterly contested before the referee. And, except for the odd moment (and there were only two) when he showed his true thoroughbred’s class, his own performance made it all too understandable why the fans were asking him where he was on Wednesday night.