A simple game
By Pete Bradshaw
Football is a simple game. You get the ball, pass it around, score a goal. You do this more often than your opponents and you win. This game at Stoke showed us some of the other more subtle aspects of the game, all of which are equally lacking in complexity. You come out and are committed to winning the ball if you don't have it. When you win it, you try and pass it to your team mates. If you don't win it, you try again. You don't let the opposition rest on the ball. You talk to each other. Encourage each other. Cajole younger players into moving on after errors caused through inexperience. You don't try and play a clever ball when a simple one will do.
And so Watford gave us an object lesson in simple football. Adrian Boothroyd will, no doubt, call it winning by not being afraid to lose. But what we had here was a team full of confidence that had been given the freedom to attack in numbers. And to defend in equal numbers. A freedom that came, undoubtedly, from the coaching staff's drawing boards but also from the opposition's collective height (lots of it), pace (little of it), directness (lots of it) and guile (little of it).
Before the game, it is customary to meet your mates in a pub to chew the fat (and in some parts of the country to eat it too). This being Stoke, that was not really an option (meeting not eating). There are the two usual reasons:
a) There is nowhere decent to go before a game in Stoke.
b) The local fans don't welcome visitors - even the official website warns you not to eat or drink beforehand as if the local plumbing wasn't up to it.
Additionally, this season we had two other reasons:
c) Most of the people I would normally meet at Stoke simply couldn't be bothered to go, having felt alienated from the club (see BSaD passim).
d) Of those few who did go, some (well, one actually) went on the free coaches and so were ferried straight to the ground. Others went by train and then straight to the ground.
So instead of the usual crowd of up to a dozen, there were just two of us. We arranged to meet in a quiet Staffordshire countryside hamlet about seven miles from the ground. We met up at the pre-determined time. Actually, this is not quite true, as I re-acquainted myself with just why I dislike countryside hamlets - no cash points meant I drove on another ten miles to find one. And then back again. There was a post office in the place we had agreed to meet but it was closed. Anyway, Graham turned up at the pre-determined time and we strode purposefully to the village pub. It was closed.
Oh well, at least I found a copy of the Stoke Sentinel's sports paper. Forty pence of a great read that conveyed all manner of stats and stories - why would anyone ever buy a programme? Not just about Stoke and Watford, but Port Vale, and Crewe too. As well as the delights of local sports and a bizarre two page spread on Conservative angling policy, there was a back page dedicated to a look back at 1975. Stoke had finished fifth in Division One (a division of the Football League and number one). Everton had finished fourth (behind champions Derby, Liverpool and Ipswich). The FA had nominated Stoke to take the third UEFA Cup place as they believed a city could only have one representative. Everton pointed out that that rule no longer held. How times change. Sort of. Oh, and Chelsea and Carlisle went down, Luton avoiding the drop on goal difference. Also on the back page was a report of the Cheshire Cup Final which Crewe lost 0-1 to Tranmere, the Rovers' goal coming courtesy of a Ray Lugg error. Yes, that Ray Lugg. And Watford had been relegated from Division Three.
What caught my eye about the sports' paper, apart from the price, was the full page colour picture of Heidar Helguson on the front with the headline "The Iceman Cometh". Quite prophetic, really. And the sub heading "...what a pity Pulis hasn't got the cash to land the Hornets' hitman". Quite pathetic, really: as if Heidar would want to go to Stoke. The stats inside revealed just why he is so prized, though: Stoke's attack is twenty-third out of twenty-four in the division. Their defence is second. Heidar...top goal scorer, highest number of shots, highest number of fouls won (and committed).
It's a simple game, football. Score goals. Be committed. Win.
A quick drive back up to Stoke, numerous pirouettes around retail parks and into the free car park. Reading - take note. But please, please, please - don't move our club to Leavesden Park. I say "our club" but it still doesn't feel like it in all respects. Here was a crunch game with massive and loud support yet I didn't really feel part of it. I enjoyed the day immensely, and had looked forward to it. But thankfully was spared the nerves that otherwise might have been associated with it. Maybe that's how the players feel now too. They are playing without nerves. For different reasons to me, obviously. But from the kick off, there was a passion and a pride. A determination to get the ball, pass it and to win it back if it was lost. Simple.
But, by mentioning the game, I digress. My day out is not really about the game (entirely). Before the kick off, we were treated to the ludicrous procession that is Stoke's Player of the Season awards. Every supporters' club votes for its own. And every one of those players gets presented with something. I wonder how many people have to vote before it is deemed to be an official supporters' club. Pete Goddard's "Watford FC Bangladesh Supporters' Association" t-shirt was quite apt, really.
Except it was yellow. Following the unfortunate pattern of this season, we lined up in blue. Stoke chose to wear their away kit too. A menacing all black with red numbers. Black and blue. How apt (again) for a game with the 'Potters'. Good solid nickname, that. So it was inevitable that it would be tarnished by the club's choice of mascots - two hippopotamuses (or something). Actually, they looked more like Moomins. Lumbering great oafs of animals. How apt (again). Still, you would expect such imaginative marketing here - after all, Staffordshire is the "Creative County". Please!
Two advantages of City's choice of kit, though - the officials wore Hornet yellow and black, and at least you could read the players' names. Which was just as well as they didn't put them on the scoreboard before the game. So we had no idea who our number thirty-seven was. We would know Al Bangura very well by the end of the game, however.
What? A match report? Oh, go on then.
The game kicked off. We remarked how much stronger, fitter and generally athletic Gifton looked. My notebook filled up with notes (I say notebook - it was beeting forms nicked from Shires Bookies). Mostly these notes involved Doyley (harrying, tackling, passing), Blizzard (being in the right place, closing down) and Young (running, crossing, chasing, growing in stature). There were few chances early on but plenty of solid challenges, Cullip joining the other three already mentioned in making sure we had the ball as much as possible. Simple.
Dyer had a half-chance, Doyley a header that led to a shot that went wide. Stoke sent a free kick wide. Young ran with the ball, and allowed Blizzard to work a good opening for Helguson who was offside. Doyley again intercepted as he tried to play both full back and centre back. Not because the others were absent, simply because he was so fired up and was reading the game so well. Blizzard and Helguson repaid Young's earlier work by feeding him the ball for a great cross that the keeper got to just before Dyer. It wasn't all one way but it was very positive. No more so than when Young had three people despatched to mark him and he still came away with the ball. "One Robbie Williams," sang the Hornets' fans - who until this time had kept up a deafening Yellow Army chant. The referee did have a good game though, as did the stewards who were very accommodating to the huge away support.
It was a hard physical game. Black and blue. Gifton was spoken to for bundling into Chambers. Then Mahon ended up in heap. The resultant Young free kick was floated by Young to Simonsen in the Stoke goal. Now Demerit was catching the eye in defence alongside the ever-talking Cullip. And up front Bouazza was finding more space, one move involving him and Young leading to a Dyer shot that was blocked. Twenty-five minutes gone and hardly any threat from the home team, Young sending another cross over as I looked at the clock for the first time.
Mahon then showed just why he is so influential when he rang a dozen yards to fly kick the ball into touch. Trouble was, he stretched just a bit too much and was taken off for treatment. Only not to reappear. While he was off the field we continued to attack, a half chance for Dyer, a cross and a freekick from Young. Stoke's attempts at attack limited to long balls that just gave us possession back. Even sometimes directly back to Ashley Young who popped up behind our midfield.
And so the captain's armband was passed to Helguson, and Al Bangura came on. How would he cope? I remembered Doyley's debut under Vialli, all enthusiasm and misdirection. I needn't have worried.
The game carried on in the same pattern, albeit with a slightly different emphasis in midfield where Bangura showed more inclination to hoof the ball clear than Mahon. He was certainly involved though, and no criticism is implied. One of his challenges led to a free kick that Duberry (or was it one of the Moomins) headed goalwards to force Alec into his first real save. Stoke had started to play the ball a little bit more now and were causing us problems that often led to throw ins or free kicks. The game had lost its flow. Well, we had lost our flow. They didn't really have any. Stoke? Staccato...
A few more chances before half-time, Helguson just offside again as we attacked at pace. Young and Bouazza prominent. Blizzard lobbed the keeper from a Doyley pass, but Simonsen just managed to tip it over as we entered "time allowed". Time allowed? What's all the rest then? As "time allowed" ran out, Stoke were on the attack but Alec was equal to it, aided and abetted by Helguson.
So how were Coventry and Crewe doing at half time? Confidently, we expected them both to be losing. Coventry 4 Derby 0. Derby, I ask you - they just can't do anything you expect of them.
The second half then, following something which resembled a penalty shootout but wasn't.
Much the same pattern. Dyer and Helguson showing first up, then Blizzard, then Bouazza running with the ball. Helguson gives the ball to Young who crosses it back for Heidar. The closest chance yet. Demerit clearing his lines, Bangura challenging - hard but fair. Simple.
Doyley mopping up after Cullip had lost the aerial battle with the Stoke giants. Bouazza and Young again threatening but not quite delivering as the Stoke defence hoovered around.
Then the goal. Same pattern as before. Young running down the right. Fouled. Free kick. Bouazza wins the ball and Helguson pokes it past the keeper. I say 'poke' but he appeared to be travelling at ninety miles an hour, feet first. No wonder the Sentinel say that Pulis wants him. The Icelandic connection in these parts helps too. And seeing as Stoke have an "official club airport"...sorry, I must concentrate...one-nil to the Golden Boys, etc.
And what's this? I don't know about tactical naivety but we're almost playing 4-2-4. Bouazza and Dyer wide up front, Helguson with Young just behind him. Tearing at the Stoke defence.
So we have just Blizzard and Bangura in midfield, really. Who'd have thought it at the start of the season. They are doing well, though - helped by Stoke's refusal to play anything through midfield. They're content rather to either knock it long or play it down the wings.
Richard Lee is in the Watford fans' end. It's getting quite a party now. I never do feel at home at parties. Where's the kitchen?
Stoke are being a bit more positive now, hardly difficult. Nor unexpected. Duberry has a header wide. But back we come with Young at the centre of things and Chambers more involved now as he pushes up. There is some good interplay between him and Young and then he releases Dyer who is adjudged to foul. The free kick is launched up field and two long diagonal passes almost provide Noel-Williams with a chance which Chambers diverts for a corner. Bangura is back helping the defence. The ball is played to feet - Young, Bouazza, Cullip, Young again, Bouazza again, Dyer. Good creative play. Direct and only lacking the final killer ball.
At the other end, a chip is gathered by Alec when it seemed to pose more danger than it did. Almost for the first time Bangura's inexperience had caused half a problem. He played with confidence and commitment though, and it was hard to believe that he hadn't been involved with the first team before. One for next season, clearly.
More Stoke pressure as we tired. A succession of corners that did not threaten too much on their own, but did when Alec completely misjudged the ball. Fortunately, Bangura was there even if he miskicked it, and the resultant Stoke shot sailed harmlessly over.
In what were becoming less frequent excursions up the field, we were finding more space. And the lack of frequency was made up for by the quality of the play, a snap shot from Helguson being particularly noteworthy. Immediately, though, Stoke responded and Demerit's misjudgement allowed for an acrobatic effort which bounced on top of Alec's crossbar. Would we hold out? People around were nervous, but still noisy. I was quite enjoying it.
Into the last quarter of an hour. Cox came on to add his experience to the defence and proceeded to make some confident no-nonsense challenges and clearances. Simple, really.
Play swung from end to end following the pattern of the second half. Stoke urgent. Watford creative and skillful. Both sides committed. The referee not being pedantic (else we'd have had about fifty free kicks). The 'B' team were doing well - Blizzard, Bouazza, Bangura. Three of Boothroyd and Burkinshaw's team for 2005/06? At the back the 'C' team were holding firm with the lone 'D'. Doyley clearly doesn't need Darlington, Demerit and Dyche to be effective. Clearly, I had got a little bored now. The game was all but won. We were all but safe and it will be a true test of our new management and the board's faith in them as we get another crack at Second Division football next season.
The game ended, after a couple of McNamee step overs, with captain Helguson holding the ball up in the corner, talking quietly to the referee as Ashley Young was dumped on the floor and then yanked back up by a Moomin (just as well he wasn't injured). He makes a good captain, I noted, as he walked back rubbing the Stoke City players' hair.
So it was back to the car. To hear how poor old Crewe had got thumped. How Nottingham Forest had become the first European Cup (sic) winners relegated to the third tier (that's division to you and me) and how Chelsea were to keep up their record of winning the league every fifty years since they were founded in 1905.
It's a simple game, football. Get lots of money and buy lots of players. And win. Or appoint Luca Vialli. Or David Platt.
So we're safe. Safe from what, I'm not too sure. Safe from Third Division football, that's for sure. Safe from further financial disaster, hopefully. My predictions of relegation and misery were unfounded. Let's hope that my predictions for next season are too. Here was a bright performance, one from which many positives can be taken and many lessons learnt.
Well done to Adrian Boothroyd and his team. You can only beat what's in front of you, and it's results that matter at this stage of the season. Today, though, showed that what makes football is not just the result. It is the style of play, the commitment and the day out with your mates. Shame more of mine are in such a state of mind that they didn't bother to come.