Red Letter Day

Pre-Season Friendly
FC Rubin Kazan v Watford FC
Saturday, 12th July 2014, 5.30pm
Drei-Lärchen Stadion (BSV Bad Bleiberg)
Entrance €5, Programme €keine
Distance 901 miles, Attendance 150 (estimate), Travelling Horns 17
Containing this ever escalating adrenalin spike has been a colossal distraction. In the preceding weeks, whilst physically (just about) meeting my responsibilities; mentally I’ve both taken flight and ridden the turbulence… twice daily.
Like waiting for school bells to release me to Record House and the promise of a freshly pressed Soul Deep 12”, childlike I’ve been gazing starry-eyed into endless daylight horizons. Closing in for what seemed like an age, the still sleepless nights have smothered my speechless breath. John Cleese was wrong; it’s not the hope that kills, it’s the eager anticipation. (At this juncture, I probably should apologise to my lovely children and wife, and her honey-do list).
Whilst logically survival is a foregone conclusion, enduring the excitement of the big match build up, is sometimes more than I can bear. Man and boy, I’ve walked this treacherous path towards footballing experiences and “special games”, and not just with Watford. Given that wealth of experience, I really should know better but then, failure to learn from history is a tragically common human trait.
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Away from our daily grind – a clear misnomer for any part of Taylor’s first reign – I first felt these twinges of exhilaration with six extraordinary nights under Vicarage Road’s floodlights. These weren’t league encounters (we were then quite accomplished in that field) or those of the Cups (we had our moments there too) but – following a hiatus of almost a decade – the “novelty mid-season friendly” started again in earnest.
When Denmark U21 rocked up in 1979 for our first ever Anglo-Danish encounter, my youthful ignorance could be forgiven for not truly appreciating the enormity of the fixture, even when we won 2-0 with goals from Jenkins and (his) sub, Cassells. Two years on, Red Star Belgrade – our first and last ever Yugoslav opponents – were held to a respectable draw; our goals coming courtesy of Armstrong and an own goal. Soon wfc v vwfcVancouver Whitecaps – a first with both Canadians and the North American continent – were dispatched both by a Poskett strike in the ninety minutes and, if my memory serves me correct, in a post-match NASL-style 35 yard one-on-one shoot-out (nonsense both then and now but, draws in American soccer weren’t “permitted” at the time). Lokeren paved the way for other Belgians in ’82, as we celebrated our first ever promotion to the top flight by duly beating them too. Given this marked the end of a momentous journey, it was fitting that two players – Bolton and Blissett – who had risen with the club from Division 4 with the club scored without return. The following season saw two great nights, though at the time we couldn’t have known they’d be the last of their kind. First we lifted the rather splendid Sheriff of London Shield, beating legendary Corinthian Casuals 6-1 with goals from Sterling 2, Richardson, Johnson, Terry, and the exotic Lohman. Having netted, the latter was duly subbed off for the equally legendary Graham Taylor.  And finally, just three weeks later, before we’d even finished our record-breaking 1982-83 campaign – a year away from the nearest Olympics but yes, our first ever Middle Eastern opponents – Watford made room for a 2-2 kick-about with an Israeli Olympic XI (Rostron and Johnson).
“Hello. My name is Ashley and I am a football junky.” On these nights I was utterly hooked. I was ready for more irrelevant yet compelling football; I needed it. Each season I’d wait, in darkened corners, thumbing through exotic league tables, old programmes and sticker albums…  but somehow, like Keyser Söze… with a pfff, they were gone.
Thirty one years on, that draw with Israel seems a very distant land. In the barren intervening years we’ve seen just nine extra-curricular home games of a similarly mysterious nature; two torturously “in private”, one “at Woodside” and a mere handful of home pre-season friendlies. Just browsing through those remaining six fixtures – all pre-season friendlies in the past decade – family holidays have prevented my attendance at five. On the sixth – the 3-2 win over Parma – I was unavoidably distracted by a bold attempt (and failure) to introduce my daughter to my second home, Vicarage Road.
Forgetting my daughter at this juncture (her yellow conversion remains my ongoing mission); for entire generations of Hornets, that genre of midweek extravaganzas (and even exotic opponents) is been confined to microfiche and dusty historical tomes. I still dream of having Calais Racing Union drop by, Jamaica needing a warm up game or, witnessing The 1881 in the Westfalenstadion. For my people – the fortunate forty plusses – all that remains is affectionate memories of those half-a-dozen nights and the UEFA Cup… and yes, I have regrets over that too.
For all my father’s reckless idiosyncrasies, thirty-one years ago, he quite responsibly wouldn’t take me out of school for a midweek trip to Kaiserslautern, let alone Sofia or Prague. Thirty-one years ago, the country was of course a very different place. As with many others, at the time we did a lot of making do. If he’d have known it would be another twenty-one years before we’d witness any kind of inter-continental fixture at Vicarage Road would he have acted differently? In this the perplexities may be many; the reality of the conclusion however is almost certainly identical.
Thankfully now however, both the world and my life have moved on. This joint historical failure by both the club (to host more such fixtures) and myself (to attend), has in part moved on too; years of travelling have seen to that. Now, no clash is deemed too small; no distance too far. Like Kerouac – for my footballing kicks – I’m on the road.
Having frustratingly missed out on the South Tyrol games last summer, this year – once the promise of a spa weekend for my wife was negotiated – little was going to stand in my way. Once the first two games were announced, it was less than a couple of days before three of us had booked up the necessary flights, car and hotel for the Austrian hinterland.
???????????????????????????????Close to the Italian border, Bad Bleiberg is a small market town in Carinthia (a region whose flag is conveniently Watford colours). Once a mountainous mining region the town – having gained its “Bad” prefix in 1978 – now makes its name on thermal springs and stunning scenery which would be perfect for hill walking. Ours however was not a leisurely yomp whistling Edelweiss but, a music-to-my-ears overnight away day. True I’d have liked to stay for both matches but work commitments were in the way. Still, small steps…
Though a longer history could be given – encompassing 1950s formation, name changing, financial worrying, relocating and dissolving – this Bad town, is now home to its very own Bad team; BSV Bad Bleiberg. Founded (again) in the shadow of Mount Dobratsch in 2006, Der Bergmännischer Sportverein Bad Beliberg – to give it its full title – now ply their trade many leagues lower than their predecessors, in the amateur league “Kärnten  2. Klasse B”. BSV Bad Bleiberg badgeWhilst the old club had won a modicum of regional silverware, finishing sixth last season (in Level 7, I understand) the new one is yet to win any trophies. They do however have a lovely ground in a stunning valley, with spa water on tap. Just 80 minutes drive from Stadio Friuli; it is almost certainly no coincidence that Udinese played QPR, in a pre-season friendly last year, at Stadion Villach Lind, in Villach, just a few miles east from BSV’s Drei-Lärchen Stadion.
Formed just six years after BSV, today’s opponents FC Rubin Kazan – Футбо́льный клуб Руби́н Каза́нь or Municipal Institution Football Club Rubin Kazan, to give them their full title – have found fortune far easier to achieve than our Austrian hosts. As the Mk1 Bad Bleiberg were finally going belly up, under the guidance of coach “Kurban Bekievich Berdiyev from Smolensk Kristall” Rubin were being promoted to the top flight for the first time ever. A stepping stone to even greater success, the Tatars finished 3rd in their first season up, before winning amongst other things the premier league twice (2008 and 2009) and 2012 Russian Cup, before moving into the state-of-the-art 45,000 Kazan Arena (which will host matches for both the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup).
When Watford’s standard pre-season schedule typically follows the “five minor – one glamour” rule, plucking out Rubin, third game in, is a distinct improvement. This match was a stiff challenge early in the schedule; this was a good barometer to test the aspirations of Pozzos and pretentions of the fans alike. For once the pre-season schedule looks both filled to bursting and testing and, THIS GAME – recent league champions and European contenders’ v Henry Grover’s offspring, on a tidy neutral ground, in a distant land – WAS/IS A HUGE DRAW.
Making our opponents appear even more adhering… Given the fuss over last season’s lack-of-red Watford badge, its also interesting to read that the Tatars are still up in arms at the recent change of club logo. The old one had been around since the 90s and was popular amongst fans. Demonstrating their displeasure through boycott, the phrases (no doubt in Russian) “Save the logo – to keep the tradition” and (a personal favourite of mine) “Against Modern Football” have been banded about.

FCRK badge 3    FCRK badge 1 FCRK badge 2

Somehow my travelling companions – the most meticulous Lady Frances Statfax and the most incomparable Don – had both been to Austria last weekend (for the 3rd and 4th announced games, being played 1st and 2nd). They’d witnessed the first of our four games out in the Alps; a 1-0 win against SK Austria Klagenfurt. The second was a midweek 7-0 trouncing of SV Feldkirchen. Whilst neither game was much more than a warm-up, to the conspiracy theorists, patterns were already beginning to emerge.
Whilst the Lady Frances and The Don were happily recounting their numerous adventures, I was distractedly – with all my amateur nous – analysing Beppe’s team selections; busy making two and two equal five. More of that later…
Our morning flight to Salzburg left far before the morning even began to wake up. Making our separate ways down to the (nowhere near) London Gatwick, we eventually met up at the departure gate, where awfully polite ground staff kowtowed to Don’s legendary status affording us all priority treatment in boarding. Making a mental note to milk this one all weekend, we settled in for the flight to Austria.
A small note to BA stewards; When wishing to thank regular passengers (me) for using your airline, do not wake them from any kind of slumber to engage in such small talk. If you really want to thank us (me), a free flight voucher in the post will suffice.
Thanks to a rather small airport, the car hire was only a moment’s walk from the terminal; finding the lift to the car and the space it was parked in was somewhat harder. The next hurdle was the retched navigation. The first satnav didn’t even switch on, so leaving Don and Fran in the care of the Skoda, I walked back up to the “help desk” for an exchange; a process that was punctuated by forced smiles, as I was quizzed as to whether we had even considered plugging it in and/or switching it on… restraining myself from demanding a map (of any era) to accompany a full refund from the “helpful” lady, I took the new new technology and returned to him and her, and the impending knowledge that the second satnav spoke a language we couldn’t even recognise…
Third time lucky, we finally set off, took a few wrong and illegal U-turns before finding the motorway south for the 95% straight forward: 5% scenic route over the mountains to our destination.
Check-in, lunch and pitch inspection all achieved, we headed back to the Drei-Lärchen Stadion to take in the warm-up act; BSV Bad Bleiberg v Weissenstein. Talking to regulars to this ground, there is rightfully much affection for their stunning valley and beautiful village. Even years after the pit closed, the BSV football team still proudly sport “Glück Auf!” a phrase to wish the miners luck before going underground.
As well as a few locals, two other Hornets – father and son, Gary and Dan – had already arrived in time for this local encounter. Finishing 2-4, the visitor’s winning goals coming late in the second half; one direct from a free-kick out wide which bobbled through the crowd and into the bottom corner, the other a tremendous lob from 40+ yards.
Just as that game was finishing, with the sun was beating down, the main act came into view. With all players carrying their own boots; Rubin arrived by coach with a crate of apples, whilst Watford strolled over the road from their quarters at the Falkensteiner Hotel; greeting the travelling Hornets before quickly nabbing the “heim” dugout.

140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (91)  140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (138)  ???????????????????????????????

Many things can be drawn from the next ninety minutes – a thoroughly engaging 0-0 draw – however the vital factor was and is the manner to which the entire squad is gelling with Beppe’s big dream.
Having warmed to Almunia, I’d fretted over his eventual replacement. Leicester double-save aside, his shot stopping was superb and kept us in many a game during his tenure between the golden sticks. Last minute kit change aside (due to clashing colours with the Russians) Gomes proved he is a very able alternative to Manuel. A shoe-in for first choice this campaign – with Bond his understudy – the commanding display he afforded those of us present, in Bad Bleiberg, was very reassuring. He communicated well with those in front of him and dealt comfortably with every shot on target.
Whatever one’s thinks of his ability – many managers have initially sidelined him at their peril – an unstoppable force, Doyley is the terminator of championship defenders. No matter what is thrown at him, Lloyd learns from mistakes and works himself into the ground to push the club onwards. This dependability was again an asset against a strong and skilful Rubin attack, regularly cleaning up when errors were made. Always ready to talk with supporters, somehow I doubt he’ll ever leave Vicarage Road; I really hope he won’t. Lloyd is a legendary figure whose Hall of Fame place is practically guaranteed. When personnel change so quickly in football, he presents an important figure that fans can easily connect with. His replacement, six minutes from time, still appears to be trying to find his feet. Though never seen long enough to properly assess him, Brown is a tidy player and worthy squad member; he did little wrong in this game. With some good ball skills he needs a run of regular football to find more consistency.
A signing that had passed me by Tamas, I feel, will become a regular first choice in the centre of defence. Whatever the game plan, he is evidently a very talented player who could easily play with the elite someday. An ever present in the first two games, he was impressive to a fault against Rubin, whether using strength or guile to outmanoeuvre the opposition. Tamas was substituted off with 16 minutes remaining for Hoban, the kind of local lad every fan wants at their club. Having seen Tommy play for Wealdstone many times, it’s a joy to see him in the first team squad. A very talented ball player who will be a huge asset for Watford. His short run out against Rubin was just as impressive as the man he replaced.
Angella continues to be an immense player for us and – once he loses the Alice band thingy – my preference to partner Tamas in the centre. Probably not yet up to full fitness, his tackling this afternoon was still extraordinary. Whilst others are still being given the once-over, evidently Beppe had also seen enough of what he can do – against talented opposition – to rest him for the second period. For some not considered a first choice in defence, Ekstrand immediately stepped up to the challenge after the interval, in what was a far more attacking half. Once or twice control went astray but in 45 minutes what players don’t mishit the occasional pass (Messi’s shot in the dying minutes last night, would’ve gone over the Observer Clock). Ekstrand is a good squad player, who should be trusted against anyone. And with Cathcart we now have five very able central defenders; I doubt any other championship clubs are that well off.
Clearly Beppe likes Pudil, as much as Pudil enjoyed being at Watford over the past two seasons. To this point he’d played almost every minute of these first three games and, was only subbed off for Doherty very late on. Whilst the very youthful Doherty can enjoy the new experience, Pudil needs to roll out the telling runs and neat passing more consistently. Like most of the team, Pudil’s fitness looks ready for the opening day already. In this game he ran tirelessly, doing everything that was asked of him and back tracked ably.
140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (122)bApart from seven minutes off the pitch at the end of today’s game, three games in, Battocchio has been ever present. Should we read anything into this; I’d like to. An amiable character and tireless powerhouse with a great touch – and scorer of the most beautiful goal in Watford history – he showed again today he could be authoritative in the middle of the park. Fabrini played those final minutes today without adding anything to that which I already new. He has a fine touch but can seem lightweight. As a squad player he could make an impact however, his visionary ideas would be improved by looking up once in a while.
Probably the best signing anywhere this summer; as he proved last season, Tőzsér is definitive proof that our recruitment policy should be the envy of many. The delightful mystery which brought him to Vicarage Road, is one which will please me for a good while. Even against a top level side he was strong in the challenge, swift in thought and deft in the pass. A fantastically talented athlete, whose invaluable task at the back of midfield cannot be underestimated. Murray joined the fray after an hour, demonstrating he is again back to his best. I’ve a sneaking feeling that “one of our own” will serve a telling role in our (hopeful) success this campaign. Keeping the flair side of his game, his back-tracking and tackling are improving constantly; he also appears to be relishing playing under Beppe.
Undoubtedly great with dead balls, I’m yet to be won over to by McGugan. That said McGugan is a great addition to the squad; for 45 minutes he was quite effective against Rubin. However having always preferred work horses to show ponies, in the past I’ve levelled the same concerns about England’s favourite tattooed one. I know both can curl a fantastic ball round/over/under walls but, what can they offer under the constant stern challenge of an all-elbows full back, when the ball is moving at pace? More than anything I want McGugan to prove me wrong.  Going from chalk to cheese (my opinion only) Abdi stepped in after the break and was utterly sublime. He also donned the captain’s armband once Deeney was rested late on. I needn’t go further. He should be the first name on the sheet (when fit). His vision is extraordinary; we are blessed to have him.
Another very talented ball player – Forestieri – was having a great game until his slightly late but tame challenge left the Tatars’ full back theatrically rolling about below us. Going to pick up the clearing acting individual, he inflamed the prone one who got up and tried to push his weight about. Amusingly Deeney 140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (179)bstepped in, pushed him away (over) as the ref ran to intervene. Realising he was no physical match for our captain, the full back looked for sympathy by writhing about some more and (no doubt) squeezing out fake tears for good measure. In fairness to the official, Forestieri taking a booking was probably the best we could’ve hope for; Deeney could have got one too. Tragically, thereafter Forestieri drifted away from any challenges. His removable at the break was as predictable as it was a shame. The replacement was Dyer. What a great signing! I’m not certain he has the close dribbling control of Fernando however, his first touch is class, he’s impressively strong and, bugger me he’s fast. The Russian defence had no answer to him or his wing partner.
Up front Deeney was again the talisman. Strong at holding the ball up, great at running off. Troy has matured greatly in the past twelve months and dealt with his captain’s duties with aplomb. He has a “don’t mess with me” manner, demands success, yet when needed shows humility and cares for team mates. Having come back from adversity, the message is clear… PLEASE Deeney, please don’t go. Ranegie came on for Troy on 75, showing some good skill, he isn’t as yet the whole package. I wouldn’t drop Deeney (even though his goal was disallowed) for him yet; he needs more game time and practice to improve the ball-playing interaction with others in the front line.
Matty’s return – hopefully with a new agent – was rightfully lauded. Off the pitch Vydra appears popular with colleagues, on it he was and is a constant threat; he can execute such majestic skill. His control against Rubin was sublime at times to beat his marker yet, the interplay between he and Troy is not yet back to its best. They need to work on this. Also replaced at the interval – by Anya – the pace issue was the most interesting. Before the break, the front line of Vydra, Deeney, Forestieri had to depend on their passing and movement to break down the defence; afterwards Anya, Deeney, Dyer were almost unstoppable. The pace at which we swept forward was exhilarating. As attacking strengths go, with or without Ranegie, together this group are going to scare the shit out of rival defences this season.
140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (183)bThere is no doubt that Sannino has a vision for this squad. He spent the entire warm-up circulating round individuals and groups, offering precise instructions to to each and every one of them. During the game his concentration on the action was only broken when some children needed their ball returned. Today alone, he’s won me over. I have my suspicion about a Gomes-Tamas-Battocchio-Deeney spine to the team but, we’ll see. Effortlessly entertaining, Beppe is determined and fair and encouraging. I’ve always felt a little uneasy about 140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (135)bencroaching on squad turf however, as we decamped from the thunderstorm that had got worse as the game drew on, Beppe was one of the first to greet us at the hotel (after the kit man had jovially rejected our pleas to do our laundry too). Buying a round for the drenched fans, in the players hotel bar as the night drew in, he seemed content to pose for photos and grateful for our support.
A final round-up goes to Nani. Whereas Beppe seems a man of few words when not yelling instructions towards the pitch, Gianluca is engaging everywhere else. Sitting in the stands with other dignitaries he greeted fans and had time for anyone who addressed him. He is/was omnipresent in the organisation of both the club and this pre-season schedule, and hands on with it. Really his wonderful dialogue on smoking cigars before the game started, was a kodak moment.

140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (105)b???????????????????????????????140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (171)b140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (175)b

Mulling the day over at dinner (back at Bermand’l) I had many pressing thoughts. Was this the best the Russia had to offer? Could we replicate such a great performance against the pretty boys of the premier league? Why the hell was I (the unwavering sceptic) feeling so comfortable about after seeing just one game? Was Don really named after three former players? Why didn’t I bring cable-ties to hang my son’s flag? Why weren’t more fans out in Austria? Would Watford destroy Chemnitzer the following day or have a complete change of personnel?
The answer to the latter, in a 0-0 draw, was both no and yes. The rest I’m still working on however, for supporters this was a truly wonderful trip to have taken. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

???????????????????????????????   ???????????????????????????????   140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (176)   ???????????????????????????????   ???????????????????????????????

Whilst the possibility of an annual three-way Famiglia Pozzo Torneo is probably the most wished for pre-season event – we did have Granada last season and will meet Udinese in a few weeks (both at home) – this season I think its safe to say we’ve struck gold with the schedule, and today’s match in particular.
Before the game, this tethered adventurer was filled with childlike excitement to get to Austria; given this impressive performance in Bad Bleiberg, now I’ve nothing but hopeful confidence for the season ahead.
Final score: FC Rubin Kazan 0-0 Watford FC

140712 PSF Watford v Rubin Kazan (86)b

Twitter Hornets on tour:      and a very tolerant 
Lady Frances’ most meticulous match report
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One Response to Red Letter Day

  1. says:

    ‘ … the still sleepless nights have smothered my speechless breath’
    Hmmmm …

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