Blackpool last visited Vicarage Road at the tail-end of last season. With a reinvigorated Watford putting together an unlikely run of form, the playoffs seemed oddly achievable. All that ended after an inept display of refereeing saw the Seasiders leave as 2-0 victors, ending the playoff push and consigning Dyche’s Hornets to a plodding end to the season. On that occasion the back of the seat in front of me was subjected to a rather severe kicking (there was nobody in it, of course).
Since then, Watford have not so much grown as been surgically heightened by a foot or two. Yesterday, it seemed like déjà vu all over again. With Watford in dominant mood, they were denied the chance to add to their 1-0 lead on several occasions as Andrew Madley waved away appeals for penalties after a push on Daniel Pudil and a tug on Troy Deeney. Two sloppy goals followed, the second of which came when Jonathan Bond spilt a corner – though the young keeper says he was being held. TV evidence suggests he might not have been, but Bond was fouled on more than one occasion at corners during the contest with Madley looking on benignly. It was in the waning minutes, with Watford pushing for an equaliser, that the man in black capped his performance with the most ludicrous decision of the afternoon. As Lloyd Doyley toyed with a Blackpool defender in the box, he had his legs completely taken out from under him. Anybody who knows Championship football would know that when compiling a list of those likely to go down too easily, Lloyd is towards the bottom of the list, alongside Nelson’s Column and the Pyramids of Giza.
It’s been pointed out that the Watford players were too honest when being fouled. Troy, with an arm over his shoulder pulling him wildly off-balance, still tried to get a foot to the ball into the box which, unimpeded, would have fallen right into his stride, and didn’t collapse in a heap on the ground. Lloyd, although there was no way of avoiding going to ground when having his leg swiped away, got straight back up and tried to keep the move going. Perhaps we need to be more like the Watford that opposition fans describe on Twitter – those diving Italians from Udinese B get all the decisions.
The problem is that the ref was clearly in the mood to clamp down on such behaviour, even when it wasn’t present. A first half 50/50 challenge on Fernando Forestieri may not have been a foul, but that the Blackpool defender made contact with the diminutive Argie was undeniable. But Madley, from West Yorkshire, seemed to have been listening to Huddersfield fans down his local, booking Forestieri for simulation and proceeding to refuse to acknowledge a single foul that the boy was subjected to. In the end, Zola was forced to withdraw him for his own protection, replacing him with the yet-again ineffective Matej Vydra.
The blindness to clear penalties directly hurt Watford’s chances, but this enforced substitution also played a large part in the defeat. Forestieri may not be prolific, he may waste a few opportunities with unnecessary flicks, but he sets a tone. When he was introduced on Tuesday against Sheffield Wednesday, he walked onto a pitch full of panic and anxiety. A few Cruyff turns in his defensive third here and a couple of nutmegs there, and the whole team seemed to wake up to the fact that we can do this football stuff better than any team in the division. When he was replaced by Vydra, a more productive, but less inspirational striker, the influence of his juvenile approach was lost.
Lately, Watford have been guilty of losing impetus going into the second half – sitting back on single-goal leads and taking it too easy. Some have levelled the same accusation at yesterday’s match. To my mind, this wasn’t a problem, the team continued to create chances, the fans were surprisingly vocal and the players were as emotionally involved as they’ve ever been. This was not a case of taking our foot off the pedal and reaping the consequences, this was a case of the better team losing, due to the influence of an inadequate referee.
A few injuries picked up in mid-week meant the line-up had to be shuffled somewhat, with Mark Yeates coming in for Jonathan Hogg and Hogg taking Nate Chalobah’s place on the bench. When Almen Abdi picked up a knock whilst warming up, Hogg was reinstated to the starting eleven. Abdi’s influence was greatly missed, with build-up from the back not being transferred to the final third with the same accuracy and movement as usual. Yeates performed very well after spending quite a bit of time out of the team. He did the simple stuff quietly and provided the greatest attacking threat of the midfield three. With Hogg beside him, however, the midfield was lacking in flair and incisive movement. Hogg himself started the game back to his old self, breaking up attacks and wasting piss-easy chances from three yards out, but as the game wore on he reverted to his recent form – giving the ball away cheaply and going missing when questions were being asked of the midfield.
In defence, Nyron Nosworthy recovered from a less than stellar performance against Wednesday with a man of the match performance. Alongside debutant Matthew Briggs and fellow Reggae Boy Lloyd Doyley, he was a beast in the centre of the three, dispatching everything Blackpool had to offer – which wasn’t much, to be honest. Briggs himself put in the display that I expected of the oft-injured Neuton. He defended well enough and would on occasion go on a maze-up through the opposition midfield, waltzing past players with swift feet and little trouble. There were a few times when a ball in behind was on, but the youngster opted to turn and play the safe ball to Nosworthy, but as he grows into the squad he will start to take more risks. A promising start from a player who looks like the type that will excel in a side like Watford’s.
Behind them all was Jonathan Bond. We haven’t written a match report since Bond started to deputise for Manuel Almunia. So here’s the deal. Bond is an excellent shot-stopper. The tipping over of a last-minute looping header against Wednesday and a similar clawing away of Matt Derbyshire’s header yesterday have been the highlights of a number of impressive stops. There have, of course, been errors – he’s a young goalkeeper – it’s inevitable. His communication could be better, but he has been confident in collecting crosses and has recovered from the errors he has made well. The fact remains that we need Almunia back as soon as possible for the promotion push. His organisation of the back line is vital and some of the saves that Bond makes look impressive would look routine to the Spaniard. Bond has shown that he has the foundations to be an excellent keeper – if you can make improbable saves with ridiculous agility then you can learn the rest – but he’s not there yet.
Blackpool weren’t up to much. Thomas Ince touched the ball once or twice, including a neat finish from six inches. The Sunday Times had him as their man of the match and labelled him ‘irrepressible’ – I’m not sure what game they were watching. After the game the two Inces apparently approached the Rookery and made unprovoked gestures to the Watford fans. Paul, a man who is never shy to cry racism whenever his terrible management career is called into question and who once said of a referee who sent him off “he can feel happy, he can tell his grandchildren he sent off Paul Ince” – is prone to a bit of victimisation. I say apparently, because at that point I was probably still sitting with my heads in my hands, incandescent with rage at what I’d just seen.