Cardiff 1 Watford 2
Championship, September 19th 2007
Are You Ready to be Heartbroken? "
Before we plunge into the barrel of murky despond and thrash ourselves into a state of other-worldly depression, let us examine a few positives. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is a striker to the manor born. He exudes class, technical precision and the natural instincts of the predatory goalscorer. Watford are crap. If that is the benchmark for success in this division, then we are a virtual shoo-in for the play-offs at least, and we can comfortably expect to be looking down from the lofty spires of the top 6 come April.
One tiny obstacle remains before we hurdle into the promotion moshpit however - we need to realise that the season has actually started, and mould the defence, midfield and attack into something resembling a mean, lean football match-winning machine. At the moment we are, in the immortal words of Stiff Records, reversing into the future, three consecutive home league defeats is not yet enough to call in the crisis management team, but if this miserable run continues, then the prospects of a decent season will have been sabotaged before all the conkers have fallen off the trees.
For Watford 2007, read Watford 1977 - Aidy Boothroyd, whose ever-so-'umble oratories on Match of the Day became increasingly annoying as their season self-destructed, is a clone of Graham Turnip Taylor, even down to the brain-numbingly trite pick'n'mix of football cliches he litters his post-match press conferences with. Despite the colossal and ridiculously unfair advantage of the parachute payments, Boothroyd has fashioned a team of turbo-charged robo-footballers, whose slavish devotion to the long ball is almost pitiable to behold. Their entire tactical worldview can be summed up as booting it long and hard up towards Doncastrian Aryan Thunder God Darius Henderson, whose flailing limbs will have left the Cardiff centre backs in a shell-shocked condition this morning.
Watford were, quite frankly, gagging for a good hiding, and in the first twenty minutes of the game, it looked like Cardiff were the team to assert bragging rights over their metropolitan dinosaur opponents. Starting line-up was not quite as expected. The increasingly frail and confidence-drained keeper Ross Turnbull was tonight shielded by right back Chris Gunter, left back Capaldi, and centre backs McNaughton and Johnson. Midfield again looked positive but lightweight - Sinclair, Rae, McPhail and Parry, with the old gimmers JFH and Robbie Fowler up front.
Paul Parry had an outstanding first half - he absolutely mesmerised the quivering wreck of a right back Doyley, turning him inside out so many times I thought the poor boy was going to spontaneously combust. Cardiff sensibly channelled much of their forward play through Parry, and were close to getting on the scoresheet after a terrific swivelling, swerving run was followed by a blockbuster right-footed shot which cannoned into Matt Poom's midriff - it deserved a goal. Despite their early dominance, Cardiff were short of genuine chances, JFH and Fowler feeding on scraps in the box, with the bulky dynamic defensive duo of Shittu and DeMerit hoovering up any flighted crosses.
Having suckered the sparse crowd into a ludicrously misplaced false confidence, the defensive house of cards collapsed in a comically bad penalty box shambles which gifted Watford the CCFC speciality soft goal. Turnbull came to collect an inswinging Watford cross, punched ineffectively and seemed to collide with Johnson, the ball ran free, was toe-poked towards the goal, hit the post, rolled agonisingly across the line, and was then bundled in by Thor. 1-0 to the Hod Carriers. Spirits dented, confidence sagged, but CCFC battled to get back into the game. For some obscure reason, the Little and Large duo of McNaughton and Johnson spent the first 10 minutes marking the wrong strikers - Johnson dwarfing Ellington, and McNaughton using a pogo stick to try and leap as high as Henderson. A shaft of tactical lightning struck the duo and they duly swapped players, only to swap back, incomprehensibly, later.
Elsewhere in defence, Gunter acquitted himself well, tidy in the tackle and positive in his ball carrying. Capaldi was less convincing - his distribution and vision were frequently wayward, making the difficulty of launching attacks from deep more pronounced. Turnbull, as we have all found out, is a liability with the ball in hand - his kicking is atrocious and he seems incapable or unwilling of throwing to his defenders. The gusting, swirling wind added a layer of complication to his kicks which rarely found their targets. Apart from the mazy brilliance of Parry, the midfield were neat, industrious but none too penetrating. Sinclair, in particular, had his quietest game yet.
Apart fom the goal, Watford offered little, Ellington was invisible beside the gangling presence of Henderson. As the half-time whistle blew, the wind and rain spattered spectators of a blue persuasion were inclined to believe that there was plenty yet to play for, provided the Bluebirds could knit together their misfiring mismatched team into a solid attacking unit. Change of personnel was not yet called for, a lot of the players simply needed to get on their game and wake up.
Early signs in the second half were promising as Cardiff forged ahead. The equaliser arrived after 60 minutes and it will be rembered by all those lucky enough to witness it for a very long time. Hasselbaink received the ball twenty yards out, took one touch, looked up and launched an unstoppable curling drive into the far corner of the net leaving the keeper banjaxed and baffled. It was a strike of perfect precision and underlined the value of a player whose class transcends his approaching bus pass. His fitness is also something to applaud.
What, then, are we to make of his oppo Robbie Fowler? Fowler cut an increasingly forlorn figure last night, jogging back and forth from penalty box to halfway line with an ever more peripheral impact on the game. Never the fastest player on the block, he now looks like he is wearing lead boots. He might also be pictured with a thought balloon above his head stating "Do I really need fifteen grand a week this much?". In all fairnees, he is probably entitled to a few more weeks before considered judgement is made, but a couple of months into a two year contract he is already beginning to look like the Jorn Schwinkendorf of the modern era. Eavesdropping at half time and on the way out, it is clear that for many fans the Fowler Era is already over. He was taken off after 80 minutes to give Steve Thompson another chance to make a hero of himself - he should really have gone long before that.
Having spurred the team on to an ecstatically received equaliser, fans were entitled to believe that this eminently winnable game was now going to develop as originally planned. Cardiff piled forward in pursuit of a winner, but did leave some gaping holes at the back. Such a hole was exploited by Dangerous Darius, who bundled in a barely deserved Watford winner after a dozy attempt by the Cardiff back four to play the offside trap failed miserably. It was a killer blow for Cardiff's players and supporters, from which we all knew we would never recover. Thompson battled bravely but was unable to do a Plymouth, and the match played out predictably to the annoyance, frustration and deep depression of the already denuded crowd.
Taxi numbers are still firmly inside pockets at the moment, but Dave Jones needs to get this team to maximise the sum of its parts in rapido fashion. A thumping win over struggling Preston will do for starters, but there is more fundamental work to be done to make a go of this season. What Watford illustrated graphically tonight is the poverty of the rival contenders. Last year's team playing at their peak would have torn Watford 2007 to shreds. With a stupidly early kick-off time, a match live on Sky against poor quality opposition, on the back of three home defeats, the crowd on Saturday will no doubt be down to the bare minimum (11,500?). Let's hope that the players are not as deflated as the supporters...
Paul Davies © 2007.
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