WATFORD 2 BURNLEY 1
Storm Doris on the way…Brexit begins…veg rationed in supermarkets… Diane Abbott has a migraine…City saved by Jesus…no claps for Klopp
The press were pretty much agreed; Vokes handled the ball when he scored against Leicester. We could live with that except that the press were pretty much the same about how unlucky Leicester had been to have lost to this goal. What twaddle, they declined to mention the definite penalty that Dean missed when Drinkwater clattered Keane in the box with a forearm into his back. They declined to mention how Burnley piled shot on shot at them, tore into them, had them on the back foot and then at corners reduced them to the most shameful display of humping and heaving that Dean was unable to control. Leicester got what they deserved, and after a season so far of decidedly dodgy decisions, so did Burnley.
We’d promised Joe a long distance game and we’d go in the car and make a day of it. Watford seemed the obvious choice, motorway almost door to door, a picnic for him on the back seat going down and MacDonald’s on the way home. Preparations for a road trip were doubled with Joe in mind. Food was the key to success and peace. A tote box was retrieved from the garage and scrubbed out so as to accommodate the sandwiches, fruit, bags of quavers, hula hoops, assorted crisps; bottles of Fruit Shoot, cheddars, small pork pies, crusty buttered bread, chocolate chip cookies and Scotch Eggs. And then we put a few things in for Joe.
Twice we’d navigated the labyrinth of the Watford one-way system already, and if we could remember it again, we’d find the car park we’ve used before. In midweek the town had been brought to a standstill by the funeral and the cortege for Graham Taylor. Sean Dyche was there following his Watford connections and friendship with Taylor. Elton John described their chairman/manager partnership as Batman and Robin. Together they had transformed the small-time, Fourth Division outfit with tin-pot stands and crumbling open terraces into what it is today. In their last game Watford had surprisingly won 2-1 against Arsenal at the Emirates. If Graham Taylor was watching from above it was a fitting tribute to him and he must have smiled his trademark smile. There are managers in football that you wouldn’t cross the road to speak to (Mourhino anyone) and a handful that are good guys. Taylor was one of them.
Experts have believed for some time that ‘the south’, land of prosperity, focaccia, café society, stock brokers, rolled umbrellas, hooray-Henrys, begins at Watford. But: other than accents and geographical flatness it is, a small town, surprisingly, in some ways not dissimilar to Burnley. Once industry based, it now isn’t, the big traditional employers have folded. The once interesting town centres are now concrete, the Watford town centre shopping mall rising like a daunting medieval fortress as you enter from Junction 5. Like Burnley it is easily stereotyped and mocked. Like Burnley, the question is often asked, who would know about it, without its football team. And were it not for football, why would outsiders ever think of going there? It is a place that you zoom by on the nearby M25 as you head for more interesting places, London, or Kent to the left or Dorset and Cornwall to the right. There are no real reasons to visit Watford unless you have relations there. There is perhaps one thing in its favour. It could be Milton Keynes or even worse, Luton, but isn’t. Nor, as far as I know, does it feature in any of the Crap Town books top ten lists. That may be a tad surprising; but to the great delight of Watford folk, Luton does.
To be named in the Crap Towns books usually has local dignitaries and worthy MPs frothing at the mouth. Jack Straw, a great admirer by all accounts of Blackburn’s shopping mall, was outraged to see Blackburn named and said the book should be treated with the contempt it deserves. But we Burnley folk simply choked with laughter as we tucked into our plates of cowheel pie with marrowfat peas and praised the architectural virtues of the St Peter’s Medical Centre.
And so to the ground: along one end is Watford General Hospital. Within two minutes’ walk is the splendid Vicarage Road cemetery. This may be by design or just coincidence but it was in the cemetery amongst the leaning headstones that we sat and ate our picnic before the FA Cup quarter final game in the days of Stan Ternent. It’s the kind of graveyard that at dusk on a foggy night you half expect Michael Jackson to come out and do his Thriller routine. Burnley lost in as dire a game as you could wish to see and Sean Dyche was an unused Watford sub. We would have had more fun staying in the graveyard. It was a game broadcast by the BBC and the tale goes that afterwards there was a clear spike in the graph that showed people wanting their licence money back.
Since then the stadium has been transformed and today was blessed by warm sun bringing out the best in all the plastic flowers in the cemetery as we wandered round it once more. One bunch was a bright claret and blue, an omen we thought; alas it was just wishful thinking as the end result was yet another away defeat. The bunting, the fireworks, the bubbly stuff can stay in the cupboard then a while longer. But the nature of the defeat was hard to take.
It all felt good in the sunshine pre-match; in our seats we wallowed in it turning our faces into its warm embrace as the players limbered up. We wondered, too, which Watford side would turn up, the one that was so abysmal at Turf Moor and lost at Millwall, or the classy Italian team that beat Arsenal.
This is a decent ground with a good feel to it, the pitch close up and personal, perfect for Harry Hornet the mascot to do his stuff, annoy the clarets and throw a few shapes. Last time we saw him he was in an outfit so drab, filthy and grubby it needed putting through a car wash. Clearly he’d had a makeover, the costume today was either new, or had been sent to the dry cleaners. And some idiot had bought him a drum, a big drum. Thud, thud, thud it went the whole game and there he sat in the second half on the wall near to the away end banging away.
‘If you can’t bang a woman, bang a drum’, the Burnley end sang. ‘If you can’t bang a woman bang a drum.’ Who thinks of these instant slices of wit?
It was a rare moment of humour on a frustrating afternoon and the frustrations began with the sending off of Jeff Hendrick. There had been an earlier incident when Stephen Ward was clattered by a desperately wild lunging challenge, the offender Niang being yellow carded for an offence that could well have merited a red for its utter manic ‘out of control’ dangerous, recklessness. Ward went flying six feet up in the air and came down flat on his stomach, legs and arms akimbo in the shape of an X. Apt enough, it was an X-rated assault. When he got up there was a 6-inch imprint in the turf. Not everyone deemed it a red; in fact the Red Brigade seemed in a decided minority. Shearer and Wright seemed to laugh it off dismissively on MOTD. ‘He just slipped,’ said Wright. We’ve heard some tripe in our time but that took the prize.
But it was Hendrick that got the red for what was an over the top challenge just minutes later. Deliberate and malicious no, such thoughts are drilled out of them at Burnley; wild and reckless yes, it was the first red card given to any Burnley player in 80 games. And from what we have seen of him so far, very un-Hendrick. Perhaps he was miffed that Niang was still on the pitch. But where is the consistency; 24 hours later Mata committed a similar tackle plum on Vardy’s ankle. He got a yellow.
If that had been Barton executing a tackle in the same style as Niang it isn’t rocket science to suppose that a red would have been produced faster than Farage can sink a pint. Then there was a scything Cathcart tackle on Brady in the last minute as he was speeding past him with an open space in front of him. Cathcart simply and callously took his legs away without a thought. It was only a yellow. This in the footie world was a professional foul, taking one for the team. So that was alright then.
So: just 6 minutes had gone by when Hendricks was sent off, and even worse was to come four minutes later when Niang sent the cross over that Deeney headed home whilst Lowton and Keane seemed to just stand and leave it. After the game, Dyche asked the referee why he had not red carded Niang, not for the crazy challenge on Ward, but with a second yellow for his goal celebration when he ran to the crowd behind the goal, Niang having scored the Watford second just seconds before half-time, again unmarked from a header. Game over, we assumed and groaned. Niang was running riot.
The first half, and down to ten men for most of it, had given us no reason to believe that some kind of miracle was on the cards. Best we can hope for is to hang on and keep the score to 1-0, but the second goal scored with a minute to go, put paid to all that. To add to the general gloom, Hull were winning, Sunderland were winning and the comfortable points gap was being whittled away.
But the second half, what a half, what a fight, what pluck, spirit, resilience, determination, bravery and resolve to take the game to Watford and go down fighting, if not even snatch some kind of result. Dyche made no immediate changes leaving both Gray and Barnes up front and it was Barnes the essence of what Burnley were all about.
Years ago, far too many for me to care to remember, we had to learn poems at Junior School. This was over 60 years ago, Roomfield Junior School and Harry Wilson the headteacher. One poem was Cargoes by John Masefield. And it was watching Barnes putting himself about the pitch that made me think of one of the lines of this poem and an image I’ve never given a thought to in 60 years.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack, butting through the channel in the mad March days,
He isn’t skilful, he has minimal finesse, but he’s rough, he’s tough; he barges his way through, nothing stands in his way. His skill perhaps is in his backside, shoulders and elbows. There isn’t the beauty of a Quinquirime from Nineveh. There isn’t the elegance of a stately Spanish galleon. He’s just a battering ram and an unstoppable force butting his way through the Watford channels. So it was Barnes that led the charge and so nearly scored at the very end but was denied by Gomes yet again. It could so easily have been 2-2.
You’d think that driving back 180 miles after a defeat might have been a gloomy journey. But it wasn’t. You could only be proud of that 10-man performance. You can’t question or criticise a team that gives its all, that doesn’t lose heart, that doesn’t lie down, that keeps going to the last second. And Barnes did get his reward for his performance. A cracking shot was deflected by an arm and Michael Oliver had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Up stepped Barnes with 15 minutes to go and side-footed it home into the bottom corner.
Now the Burnley away support pumped up the volume so that any patients in the hospital at the bottom end of the ground needing rest and quiet would have had no chance of an afternoon nap. The roars and cheers were now deafening, non-stop, frantic, frenzied, every supporter doing their bit to be the extra man. It was so loud, even the drum went quiet. Players will say they know and appreciate it and it almost paid off. Barnes was through in the very last seconds, the Watford defence in a state of panic, but Gomes was in the right place. Kaboul had played his part for Watford in defence, a no-nonsense, get rid type of player who pretty much had Gray under control. When in doubt hoof it out, a Kaboul in a china shop.
And so Master Joe, mesmerised by the game, had his fix of long distance support, and we sped north talking of the fightback and Barton and Brady and Barnes. Barton was here, there and everywhere, another all-action performance and in Brady at last there is a wide man who actually does have some pace, can get past a defender and cause a threat. Arfield and Boyd are workers, runners but at this level you need more than that. With Zarate, Watford had attacking players that had pace and flair and in Niang a raw talent that Burnley couldn’t hold in the first half. Maybe this was a game that contrasted two managerial philosophies, and the type of players that each side had was a clue to those beliefs and requirements.
We decided too, on the way home, that Burnley had given new meaning to the words heroic and resistance. A Heaton second-half miracle-save from Deeney was testament to that, his body going one way and his arm the other at point blank range. Maybe you can have a mini grumble sometimes at the lack of panache and flair, but for a never say die spirit, and a Churchillian ‘we shall never surrender’ attitude, there can’t be a finer team in the League.