Middlesbrough 2 Watford 2
by Dave Hearn
Firstly, I would start by saying I wasn’t much looking forward to this one having been caught in a torrential downpour on the way to the game and then having to stand about in it for an hour or so selling fanzines. My coat isn’t waterproof, you see, and once it’s wet it stays wet for a good couple of hours after so the chances of me catching a cold were quite high. But I digress. Ah, one further digression would be to add that I got stuck in the turnstiles on the way in, what with me lumbering about with a big bag of fanzines on my shoulder, and had to be helped out by a steward. That there was a minute’s silence in progress whilst this was happening served only to compound the misgivings I had at the time.
Anyway, the game started and I could see Mark Venus had reverted back to the 4-4-2 he deployed to great effect against Doncaster Rovers a fortnight back, with Gibson and Carayol returing to the side at the expense of Friend and Varga. Hines was in for Woodgate as well, so I figured it safe to assume that El Woody had suffered a rare injury. Watford were going with their Continental 5-3-1-1-cum-3-4-2-1 – possibly, it was difficult to be certain about what they were playing in truth – with ex-Boro loanee Josh McEachran collecting splinters on the visitor’s bench. It was a fairly ordinary opening to the match, with neither side being able to string anything of any great quality together in the first twenty or so minutes and it felt every bit the average, run-of-the-mill second-tier affair. Watford seemed intent on feeding it into Troy Deeney’s neck or Fernando Forestieri’s dancing shoes and building from there, whilst Boro concentrated on getting it into Adomah and Kamara as quickly, and as often, as they possibly could but to no real avail in terms of creating anything of note.
It took until just before the half-hour mark for the game to come to life, with Marvin Emnes turning his man for the first time and feeding Kei Kamara who in turn slid a lovely little slide-rule ball through for Rhys Williams to gallop onto; rather than shooting himself, which seemed like the only thing he could do at that moment in time, he executed a delightful back-heel for Boro goal-machine Albert Adomah to absolutely thwack past Manuel Almunia. It was a sublime goal of genuinely high quality and it was exactly what the game needed. But Boro couldn’t keep any real pressure on and Watford gradually began to work their way back into things, with the clearly-too-good-for-this-division Forestieri at the heart of everything positive they put together. They slid a couple of balls down the sides and behind our defenders but never got on the end of anything, though the signs pointing to a Watford equaliser were quite clearly on the horizon and, when they did score, it was the kind of goal we’ve seen our lads give away time and time again this campaign. A long and hopeful ball forward managed to catch our entire back-line out and the big old unit that is Troy Deeney latched onto it and slotted it past a woefully exposed Jason Steele.
The second-half started in much the same fashion, with Watford content to stroke it around until they could get their front players involved and the Boro content to, well, continue to do whatever it was we were trying to do. Adomah and Carayol struggled to make any real impact, with the former wasting a couple of decent chances to skin their defender when one-on-one with him and the latter seemingly lacking the confidence to try and beat his man en route to the byline. It was a disjointed half, a half full of misplaced passes, aimless long-balls up to Kamara and the familiar feeling that the opposition would definitely score more goals on account of our shakiness at the back. It was clear we were having problems in the middle of the field, with Watford having an extra man in there, and Leadbitter and Smallwood struggling to impose themselves on the game with any degree of meaning. Emnes was crowded out to the point where he pretty much disappeared from proceedings altogether and the game was crying out for Jacob Butterfield to be introduced as quickly as possible. Quite why it took Mark Venus almost thirty-five minutes, and a Watford goal, to bring Butterfield on is something of a mystery but on he came, with his team now trailing after Daniel Ayala’s mistake allowed the ever-impressive Forestieri to nip in and prod past Steele not long after the seventy minute mark.
Butterfield’s eventual introduction brought about a return to the sort of thing we were doing regularly under Tony Mowbray; a central-midfield trio knocking it from side-to-side for a bit before giving up and clipping a hopeful one in the vague direction of Kamara. Watford looked threatening on the counter as the Boro tried to push forwards, but it was us who almost scored the next goal via a Kei Kamara header, which Almunia did well to block at close-range. With two minutes remaining, Seb Hines’ hamstring went-a-walking and, bafflingly, with the team 2-1 down at home and just a couple of minutes plus stoppage time left to play, the stand-in gaffer brought George Friend on instead of Lukas Jutkiewicz. It felt like we’d missed a trick but we persevered until the death and finally pinched an equaliser courtesy of yet another terrific leap from Ayala to nod home Leadbitter’s corner. We’d got out of jail at the death but Watford’s profligacy in front of goal and a little bit of spirit from the lads means it will probably go down as a pretty decent point for us. We also had strong grounds for a penalty when a Watford defender seemed to use his hand to control, or block, the ball on the edge of his own six-yard box. The referee, something of a fusspot all day long, never gave it despite the huge appeals.
So it was a scrappy one, a pretty poor one, one where we again failed to apply sufficient pressure onto a side that likes to pass it, one where we wasted so much of the ball it’s kind of annoying and frustrating in equal measure, but we’ve scrambled a point and showed a touch of something resembling a collective spirit and that’s to be commended, I suppose, but maybe not just yet on account of it only ending a few short hours ago. The lack of cohesion on show was worrying, as was the ever-creaky defence, as well as the lack of genuine bite in midfield(Leadbitter, as harsh as it may be, deserves to be singled out for criticism despite teeing-up the equaliser – he was way, way under par today). It’s another day where I’m left scratching my head because we were so poor yet Watford, one of the better sides in the division, couldn’t manage to beat us and we scored a genuinely fantastic opener, a goal which showcased the quality we have in the side in an attacking sense, and yet the deficiencies in the team are there for all to see.
We are an incredibly frustrating team to watch at the moment and I think it’s absolutely imperative we have our new gaffer, and his staff, in place as quickly as possible if we are going to address our shortcomings in time to be able to make an impact on the business end of the table. As things stand, sixteenth place feels about right but we’ve got to be doing better than that, haven’t we?