Date: 28 August 2013
Now that we’re in a Division that takes no part in the League Trophy, that doesn’t join in the FA Cup till January, and that takes ‘international breaks’ from time to time, it’s all the more disappointing to be knocked out of the League Cup. It leaves us with a dearth of fixtures between now and the end of the year, and gives very little opportunity for fringe players in the squad to get much match practice.
Not that this was the main subject of pre-match discussions at the local Wetherpoons. The club had just announced the acquisition of Tokelo Rantie, as rumoured (and hotly denied) for the previous couple of months, and we were all unsure whether a one million pound signing was such a good idea – compared, for example, to two half-million pound signings. If we have general weaknesses in defence and midfield, and poor quality service given to our striker(s), it’s questionable whether one hot forward can turn our results around. Eddie Howe’s currently confessing bafflement as to why results – especially away from home – aren’t going our way, but the answer’s simple: the opposition are scoring more goals than we are. This needs fixing right across the park.
We lined up tonight – once again – in a 4-5-1 system, with Fraser – MacDonald – Hughes – Surman – Pugh strung across the midfield and Pitman all on his own up front. Cook, Arter and Grabban were evidently being rested; while Daniels and O’Kane are injured. We started somewhat tamely – but so in fairness did Watford who’d also dropped key players. The first half wasn’t looking like the spectacle that our previous match at this venue – just 18 days ago – had been. One new tactic had obviously been learned in training this week: the diagonal pass. So again and again we saw Francis pass to Pugh, or Harte to Fraser. This certainly surprised the opposition, but we weren’t able to capitalise on it. Disaster struck on the quarter-hour mark when MacDonald gave the ball away, and a Watford player put in a cross that appeared innocuous enough because it seemed none of his teammates would reach it. But Ward leapt up and knocked the ball, from his chest/shoulder, in the direction of Allsop. There was evidently no understanding between them though, because the ball simply careered into the empty goalmouth right in front of horrified Cherries’ fans. Full marks to Ward for at least being mortified, standing with his head in his hands realising what he’d done. It’s been known before for players to score a goal just after their wife’s given birth to a baby (as Ward’s had, two days ago) – but usually it’s at the ‘right’ end of the pitch! Anyway, the half continued with Bournemouth exhibiting weaknesses in too many areas. Most notable were the facts that Ian Harte was never anywhere near the ball nor the player whenever Watford advanced on their right flank; and that every single one of Surman’s passes seemed to go awry tonight. But we limped along to half time only one goal behind our hosts. Our best chance came when Harte dummied a free kick on Bournemouth’s right and Pugh put a great ball into the penalty area, but unfortunately no-one managed to score off it.
There were no substitutions for either team at the start of the second half, and we actually started to come into the game more. Ten minutes or so in, we had a purple patch in which the Cherries (now playing towards their own supporters) seemed to come surging forward again and again. There were several scoring opportunities but the best two chances both fell to MacDonald as his first shot was blocked, and he regained the ball on the rebound but – despite his closeness to the goalmouth – somehow sent it wide. There were also several occasions when Francis in particular sent excellent crosses across the goalmouth, and there were no Watford defenders in attendance, but Pitman et al were just a pace back from where they should have been and so no shot ensued. In the next five minutes or so we continued to advance; the players were developing a really good understanding between them; and surely it could only be a matter of time before we scored? But Eddie chose this very moment, of all moments, to make a double substitution – taking all the momentum out of our game. There seemed some small logic in bringing on Thomas if we were going two up front, but we weren’t; Pitman now dropped back into midfield. And it was good to see Coulibaly again but this meant dropping Fraser – who’d been prevented from making his usual surging runs because two Watford players had been marking him out of the game, even when he’d tried to confuse them by occasionally swapping flanks with Pugh!
We were to have one more serious attack on the Watford goal: on the 66th minute. But this resulted in an alleged handball incident involving a Watford player. While our players stood around appealing to the referee, Watford mounted a swift counterattack from which came an excellent cross, with our defenders all over the place, and a brilliant Battocchio goal at pace. 2-0 to Watford, and effectively game over.
Four minutes of time added on couldn’t help us, as we knew, and even if Pugh hadn’t shot over the bar from a corner we’d still only have reduced the deficit to 1-2, which is no better than 0-2 in a knockout cup game. But at least supporters could be relieved that the much-feared late late night with extra time and penalties never materialised, meaning I was on a train out of Watford Junction just after 10 PM, on a train out of Clapham Junction at 10:49, and in my home in Walton-on-Thames before quarter past eleven.
The team lined up as follows at the start of the game (I've given the players marks out of ten):
Francis (8), Elphick (7), Ward (6), Harte (5);
Fraser (7), MacDonald (7), Hughes (7), Surman (5), Pugh (7);