Lucky, Lucky Arsenal

Watford fans invading Highbury

During the week, I received an email from a Watford friend who lives in one of the apartments at the old Highbury stadium inviting our party for a pre-match tour.  As arranged, we met outside the main entrance which is part of the old East Stand facade and were taken into the marble hall to see the bust of Herbert Chapman and the Arsenal insignia that adorn the floors.  Then out to “the pitch”, which is now a communal garden.  We stood on the centre circle, noted the spot at which GT had his altercation with Steve Williams in 1987 and admired the memorial bench that has been added in memory of all the Arsenal fans who had had their ashes scattered at Highbury.  It was all rather lovely, and pleasing that so much of the façade has been retained.  Apparently, you don’t have to be an Arsenal fan to live there, but a couple of residents who turned up after a game wearing their West Ham shirts found that they could not get past security, so they do have some standards.

From there we made our way to one of the few pubs around the ground that allows away fans in.  It wasn’t the most salubrious of venues and the selection of beer was limited and not particularly appealing, it certainly reminded me why we usually have our pre-match pint further afield.

As expected, team news was that Gracia would make his first change to the starting XI this season, with the enforced omission of the injured Janmaat who was replaced by Navarro.  Thankfully, the red card shown to Kabasele during the week had been rescinded, so he was available for selection.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart, Navarro; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deeney, Gray.

Pereyra and Holebas preparing for a free kick

Watford started the game brightly, but had an early scare as Lacazette burst into the area, he was tripped by Kabasele but stayed on his feet and shot wide.  I suspect that if the Arsenal man had gone to ground, the referee would have awarded a penalty, so we were grateful to him for his honesty.  Watford then had a terrific chance to take the lead as Deeney headed a cross from Holebas back to Hughes but the shot was just wide of the target.  The hosts then had a great chance as Lacazette robbed Cathcart in midfield and advanced towards Foster, he lifted the ball over the keeper, but it drifted just wide of the target, much to the relief of the travelling Hornets.  At the other end, Deeney found Hughes whose shot was deflected over, but the flag was up for an infringement anyway.   The first caution of the game went to Deeney for a foul on Monreal.  A free kick from Holebas caused some concern in the Arsenal defence, but Cech was able to make the block as Kabasele challenged, before also blocking the follow-up from Deeney.  At the other end, Xhaka tried a shot from the edge of the area, but Foster was down to gather.  The first card for the home side went to Torreira, who was booked for a foul on Deeney.  Arsenal were forced to make a substitution in time added on at the end of the first half, when Cech pulled a hamstring while taking a free kick and had to be replaced by Leno making his debut in the Arsenal goal.

I must admit that at the end of the half, I felt that Arsenal had more of the play, which may have been due to my position low down in the stand at the end which Arsenal were attacking. Although, I seemed to have been unduly intimidated by their attacking prowess as others around me were bemoaning us not taking our chances and feeling that we should have had the lead.

Deeney and Success ready for a ball into the box

The first chance of the second half fell to the home side as a corner from Özil was headed over the bar by Holding.  There was a much better chance for the Hornets as Deeney met a Holebas free kick with a shot that was heading for the bottom corner until Leno made a great save to put it out for a corner.  At the other end, an Arsenal breakaway finished with Lacazette heading wide of the target.   Mustafi was booked for a protest and then Emery made his first unforced substitution bringing Iwobi on for Ramsey.  Watford threatened as Gray latched on to a through ball from Deeney, but Leno was out to block the shot.  Leno was called into action again soon after, gathering a cross from Holebas.  Then Pereyra had a terrific chance to open the scoring, cutting inside Torreira before shooting just wide of the far post.  Gracia made his first change with 20 minutes to go, bringing Success on for Gray.  The substitute made an immediate impact as he received a pass from Deeney and took a shot that was blocked by Holding.  Watford threatened again as a Holebas free kick broke to Cathcart who poked the ball goalwards, it was blocked and his follow-up was caught by Leno.  Success should have given Watford the lead when he broke into the box, but he aimed for the far corner and the shot bounced agonizingly off the post.

Deeney passing instructions to Pereyra

At this point the voice of Cassandra could be heard behind me, “We know what will happen now.”  Arsenal’s final substitution came with quarter of an hour remaining as Aubameyang made way for Welbeck.  Then the normally mild mannered Doucouré went into the book for a protest.  With nine minutes to go, Cassandra’s prophesy came true as Iwobi crossed for Lacazette and Cathcart’s intervention only served to deflect the ball into the net.  So irritating.  Watford had had their best spell of the game and looked totally in control, but the home side were ahead.  Watford had a chance to break back as Pereyra played the ball out to Doucouré who shot well over the bar.  But it wasn’t to be and insult was added to injury as Arsenal scored a second two minutes later after another quick break as Lacazette exchanged passes with Iwobi before sliding the ball to Özil who side-footed home. Watford made a second change with Femenía coming on for Navarro.  At this point, the Arsenal fans could be heard for pretty much the first time all afternoon with a chant of “Deeney, what’s the score?”  The visitors had a couple of late chances to reduce the deficit.  First, Pereyra went on a run before firing over the bar.  Then Doucouré met a cross from Holebas with a header that flew over the bar.  Into time added on and the final chance of the game fell to the home side, but the shot from

Herbert Chapman in the Marble Halls

Lacazette was just wide of the far post.

It was a cruel finish to the game.  Watford had been the better side for most of the second half and had considerably more shots on goal, but the hosts made the most of those that they had and it was the finishing that proved the difference between the teams.

Still, it was difficult to be too upset.  It had been another terrific performance with the Hornets yet again showing themselves to be easily the match of one of the top six.  On the evidence of the performances so far this season, we have little to fear when facing the majority of the teams in this division and I never thought that I would be saying that when we were first promoted.

 

Entertainment on the Riverside

Another Saturday game, but also another on television meaning a stupid kick-off time.  This time at 12:30, which is the worst time for a football match.  I left home bright and early and, due to the timing of my trains, was outside the designated pub about 20 minutes before it opened so, as I refused to take refuge in the Wetherspoons next door, I sat on the side of the river in the drizzle watching an intrepid fellow constructing his windsurf board.  I love the water as much as the next guy, but that seemed a little adventurous on such a miserable day.

When the pub opened, I bought a couple of pints and found a cosy corner to wait for my party to gather.  The early kick-off meant that it really didn’t seem like time for football, but the walk to Craven Cottage has to be the nicest in the league and I enjoyed the stroll along the Thames through the park to the ground.  On entry, I decided to find the Ladies, which I was told was under the stand.  Instead of the usual entrance, there was a series of doors allowing multiple queues and complete privacy.  I was also impressed to see that there were free sanitary products in the cubicles.  Well done, Fulham, for that gesture.

Team news was, as expected, an unchanged team for the sixth league game this season, so the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deeney, Gray.  The opposition dugout would, of course, contain Slaviša Jokanović, the man who took the Hornets to the Premier League, and the lovely Marco Cesarini, former head of medical at Watford, even if he is mostly remembered for translating for Beppe Sannino.

The game started brilliantly for the Hornets as, in the second minute, Hughes cut the ball back to Gray who finished smartly past Bettinelli in the Fulham goal to ensure that the away stand started shaking bright and early in the game.  The goal celebration continued with an inflatable woman in a Watford shirt bouncing around the stand.  Fulham tried to strike back as Johansen broke into the box, but Foster was out to save at his feet.  Vietto was the next to try his luck, drawing a save from Foster before latching on to the loose ball and shooting wide of the far post.  At the other end, Deeney met a low cross from Gray with a shot that was blocked for a corner.  The corner was met by the head of Kabasele, but his effort was blocked on the line by Sessegnon.  Watford had a couple of great chances to increase their lead.  First a Watford free-kick was saved, but the Fulham keeper could only push it out to Doucouré who hit a delicate shot wide when if he’d wellied it it would have hit the back of the net!  Then a clearance fell to Gray whose close range shot was blocked by Bettinelli.  A Fulham break was frustrated by the Watford defence who refused to allow Mitrović a sight of goal.  As Kabasele amiably reacted to some grief he was getting from the Fulham fans, I couldn’t help noticing that those at the front of the stand were wearing the “Come on Fulham” clappers that had been left on seats as hoods to protect them from the rain.  The first booking went to Mawson for a nasty foul on Pereyra.  This was followed by another booking for an even worse foul on Deeney by Fosu-Mensah, who was possibly lucky to stay on the pitch.   Doucouré then impressed and frustrated in equal measure, beating a couple of players before hitting a shot that was weak and straight at the keeper.  There was a huge shout for a penalty when Gray got on the end of a through ball and passed to Hughes, who was taken out by Mawson, but the referee waved play on while we all looked at each other in amazement.  At the other end, Mitrović fell over Hughes in the box and made his own penalty claim, thankfully his was also given short shrift by the referee.  With five minutes to go to half-time, the Watford substitutes all paraded past us on the way to the dressing room.  I know many fans try to beat the crowds to get to the tea bar, but this was the first time that I had seen that from the players.  There was one last chance for the Hornets to increase their lead before half time, but Pereyra’s curling shot flew just wide of the far post.

So we reached half time a goal to the good, but the consensus was that we should have finished Fulham off.  We had dominated the half, but not made enough of our chances.

As the half time tannoy announcer did his stuff, I couldn’t help missing the voice of Diddy David Hamilton.

As the teams came out for the second half, Jokanović was warmly applauded by the travelling Hornets, but I don’t think he realised that the applause was for him as he didn’t react.  He made two changes at the break with Mawson and McDonald making way for Odoi and Ayité.  The changes immediately made a difference and the hosts started strongly.  First, a cross from Schürrle was headed over by Mitrović, then Vietto advanced but his shot was high and wide.  Watford’s first booking went to Holebas for what looked like a decent tackle on Vietto.  Watford’s first goal attempt of the second half came as Doucouré played the ball out to Gray whose low shot was saved by Bettinelli.  Pereyra then almost played the visitors into trouble as he tried to dribble out of defence but lost the ball, thankfully the resulting header from Mitrović was deflected for a corner.  Jokanović made his final substitution on 63 minutes bringing Anguissa on for Johansen.  Deeney had a great chance to increase the lead for the visitors, but was too greedy and ran into a defender who forced him to shoot wide when maybe he should have passed to someone in a better position.  Gracia made his first substitution as Femenía came on for Hughes. The home side equalised on 78 minutes as a low cross from Vietto was turned home by Mitrović.  It was frustrating, but on the balance of play in the second half, it felt as though it had been coming.  Gracia made his second change soon after bringing Success on for Gray.  Watford should have regained the lead on 84 minutes as Deeney gained possession and powered into the box but, on this occasion, he wasn’t selfish enough as he tried to play in Success and his cross was cut out.  The Nigerian then had a chance of his own but his low shot was saved.  At the other end, the home side nearly took the lead with a fabulous shot from Mitrović that required a wonderful flying save from Foster to keep it out.  The resulting corner was met by the head of Mitrović, but Foster came to the rescue again, getting a touch on it to push it on to the crossbar.  There was a late substitution from the Hornets as Sema came on for Pereyra.  In time added on Watford had a couple of chances to snatch a victory.  First, Success unleashed a rocket of a shot from distance, but it was well over the target.  Then Foster launched a free kick which was headed down by Deeney towards Success but the keeper gathered.  Just before the final whistle, a tap on the shoulder alerted me to the sight of the Queen’s rowbarge, Gloriana, passing by the ground on the Thames.  Obviously hoping to get glimpse of the Golden Boys.

So, for the second week running, we came away disappointed at the result.  I think we would all have taken a point before the game, but our first half performance was such that we should have been further ahead at half-time and, had that happened, it seemed unlikely that the home side would have been able to recover.  Instead, Fulham were still in the game at the break and Jokanović made changes that strengthened his team, who pressed harder against the Hornets who then misplaced more passes and allowed the home side to threaten more.  Still, it was another terrific game for the neutral, this season has seen some excellent entertainment and that is something to be enjoyed.

 

Disappointment and Pride after First Defeat of the Season

Harry Hornet in happier times

After a trio of Sunday afternoon games, we returned to a Saturday kick-off, although it was not until 5:30pm, so still a disruption to the routine.  When kick-offs are moved, I always have a fear in the back of my mind that I have the time wrong and will miss the game. This wasn’t helped when I watched the rather sweet NBC advertisement for the game which featured a little girl answering questions from her friend about why she is a Watford fan.  At the end, they announce that kick-off is at 12:30 and I had a brief moment of panic before I realised that this was the time on the East coast of the US.  This piece heavily featured Harry Hornet, which was rather sad following the announcement this week that he was hanging up his oversized boots.

He has provided the fans with a lot of entertainment over the years and will be greatly missed.

Due to the late kick-off and an appointment in Hemel the next day, I decided to stay in Watford overnight and, as I checked in, the American couple in front of me were asking about where to go for the pre-match atmosphere.  It turned out that this Man United fan had turned up in Watford without a ticket.  A risky ploy given the relatively small capacity at Vicarage Road.

Our Stars in Stripes in front of the display in the family stand

I was in the West Herts bright and early to join Don who, needless to say, had been there since before the doors opened.  He does like to make sure that he is in place in plenty of time for kick-off.  We suspect that, between games, he sits quietly in a corner where they keep him going with regular cups of tea.  It was a day to remember absent friends as it would have been GT’s 74th birthday and Toddy’s anniversary is this week.  While there was little expectation that our 100% record would continue, we had to hope that the lads would still do them both proud.

As we approached the ground, the touts were out in force on Vicarage Road, a very distasteful sight, but one that would have been welcomed by the young American that I met at the hotel.  When I went to buy a programme from my usual seller, I was a little concerned to see a young lad in place of the usual woman, so asked after her to find that she was absent due to a hen night.  I was mightily relieved.

As we took our seats we were greeted with impressive stripes of yellow and black in the family stand and the SEJ, as the club had put yellow and black t-shirts on seats to further encourage the fans to join in with the ‘Stars in Stripes’ that we have come to love this season.  I was actually amazed at how many people had donned the t-shirts.  It looked great.  Prior to kick-off, Emma congratulated Javi Gracia on both the Manager of the Month award and the League Managers Association Performance of the Week for the Tottenham game.  As he took the applause of the crowd, there was that niggling worry that the curse of the MoM award would kick in.

Pereyra on the ball

Team news was, unsurprisingly, that the starting XI remained unchanged for a fifth match in a row so the line-up was Foster; Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart, Janmaat; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deeney, Gray.  Manchester United featured former Watford favourite, Ashley Young, who has sadly become a villain for the crowd after his “in your face” goal celebrations in front of the Rookery on his last visit.  The visitors were sporting pale salmon pink shirts that appeared to be the result of the kit man leaving a red sock in the machine when washing a white away kit.

The visitors started the game strongly with Foster being called into action in the second minute when Sánchez found Lukaku in the box, but the Watford keeper dived at his feet to avert the danger.  Watford’s first chance came soon after as a clearance fell to Doucouré whose shot was wild and wide of the target.  United’s next chance came through a shot from Pogba, but Foster was down low to save.  At the other end Hughes turned and shot, but it was an easy catch for de Gea.  At this point, there was a very loud chorus of one Harry Hornet.  Watford had a terrific chance to take the lead after some interplay between Pereyra and Deeney, the Watford captain’s shot required a smart save from de Gea to tip it over the bar.

Doucoure, Capoue and Hughes looking unsure about Deeney’s instruction

United had the ball in the net in the 24th minute as Sánchez finished from close range, but the flag was up for offside.   Sánchez threatened again on the half hour, running into the box and hitting a shot that was pushed over by Foster.  The first booking went to Capoue for a rather innocuous trip on Lingard, which seemed harsh given some of the challenges that had gone before.  The visitors took the lead after 35 minutes when Lukaku chested Young’s cross home.  From the Rookery, there were (erroneous) shouts of offside.  Holebas was also unhappy at something about the goal and was booked for his protest.  Watford had a wobble after the goal and United could have had a second from a Pogba shot, but Foster pulled off a terrific save.  But the visitors scored a second within 3 minutes as a corner was flicked on by Fellaini to Smalling who controlled on his chest before volleying past Foster.  The visitors had a chance to increase their lead further in time added on at the end of the half as Lingard crossed for Pogba whose snapshot was kept out by a brilliant save from Foster.  So we reached half time two goals down, which seemed slightly harsh but was the result of an uncharacteristically shaky spell after the first goal was scored.

The half time guest was Peter Kennedy who, it has to be said, was totally unrecognizable.  He works as an accountant in local government in Northern Ireland now, not a typical career path for a former Premier League footballer.

Both teams emerged promptly for the second half but were kept waiting by the officials.  Having toured the ground recently, I can assure you that it wasn’t the comfort of the referee’s room that detained them.

The wall jumps as Pereyra takes a free kick

The first chance of the second half fell to the Hornets when Pereyra won a free kick and took it himself, but his shot was over the bar.  The Hornets almost made the breakthrough as Holebas delivered a corner into the box, but Smalling beat Kabasele to the header and it went out for a corner.  The Hornets pulled one back after 65 minutes as Doucouré beat a defender and pulled the ball back for Gray who finished brilliantly past de Gea.  There was minimal celebration before the Watford lads ran back to the centre circle for the restart.  Game on!!  A couple of minutes later, there were shouts for a free kick as Pereyra was fouled on the edge of the area, but Mike Dean waved play on.  With 20 minutes remaining, each side made a change with Lingard making way for Martial for the visitors and Femenía replacing Janmaat for the Hornets.  Femenía’s first act was to play a lovely cross for Pereyra, but Valencia took the ball off the foot of the Argentine.  Pereyra then laid the ball off for Doucouré, but the shot was well over the bar.  Matić was booked for a foul in the build-up.  The central defenders came into their own as Craig Cathcart made a brilliant sliding tackle as Sánchez appeared to be through on goal.  Then Martial was prevented from shooting by an equally wonderful tackle from Kabasele.

Holebas crosses

There was a rash of late substitutions as McTominay replaced Sánchez for United and Gracia brought Masina and Success on for Holebas and Cathcart, both of whom left the field to appreciative applause.  Doucouré had impressed in the second half, although his shooting had been suspect, but he did brilliantly with a curling shot that de Gea just managed to hold.  There was a paltry 3 minutes added at the end of the game, most of which seemed to be taken up by Valencia taking an age to leave the pitch when being replaced by Bailly and then Matić leaving the field equally slowly after being shown a second yellow card for a foul on Hughes.  Foster came up for the free-kick, and it looked as through Watford would save a point as the delivery from Hughes was met by the head of Kabasele, but de Gea appeared from nowhere to make the save.  There was one final chance for the Hornets as Masina’s corner curled across goal and just past the far post, so the Hornets went down to their first defeat this season.

 

Cathcart ignoring Deeney

Fair play to the Watford fans who chanted passionately for their team after the final whistle.  Given that the Hornets had been behind for the whole of the second half, it was a testament to their performance that Occupation Road was totally packed at the end of the game as the Watford fans had stayed to the end.  It was a terrific second half performance which deserved a point.  As has been the case in every game so far this season, it was a terrific team effort but Cathcart and Kabasele continue to impress.  It seems time to resurrect the “Cool as Craig” t-shirts for our unfussy, unflappable defender.  Deeney and Gray also continue to link up well and Andre’s goal was terrific.

Back to the West Herts and Glenn had picked up some unwanted yellow shirts, so this Rookery resident was able to take one home.  The consensus of the post-match discussion was that, while we were all disappointed at the result, it had been a very impressive performance and we matched Manchester United all over the pitch.  We were a very content group of Hornets.  Our recent performances have shown that we have nothing to fear in this division this season, and that is certainly not what Watford fans were expecting when the season started.  Long may it continue.

Beating Spurs after 30 Years

Capoue hits a shot

After our terrific start to the season, the game against Spurs had to be considered as a free hit and I have to confess that I travelled without either hope or expectation of anything from the game.  The travelling part had challenges with a strike on South West Railways, the closure of Euston and a partial closure of the Metropolitan line.  But, despite my concerns, it turned out to be an easy enough journey and, in contrast to last week, the walk to the West Herts was in blazing sunshine.  When I arrived, the food service had not yet begun, but I put in my order for the jerk chicken.  It took about an hour and a half to arrive, but was well worth the wait.  Last week had been more of a barbecue version, this week it came fresh from the grill with proper jerk seasonings and a good helping of rice and peas.  Just gorgeous.  We noticed that the clock in the club was an hour slow, which helped us with the 4pm kick-off as we just kept to our usual matchday schedule.

Team news was that Gracia had stuck with the same team for the fourth league game in a row, so the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart, Janmaat; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deeney, Gray.

Cathcart, Deeney and Hughes

Tottenham launched an early attack as Kane found Lucas in the box, but Kabasele continued his great performance from last week with a lovely saving tackle.  With little in the way of action on the field early in the game, the 1881 amused themselves with a chant of “Milton Keynes, you’re having a laugh” in reference to the fact that Spurs have applied to stage our League Cup game at the stadium that must not be mentioned (booooo).  The next chance for the visitors came as Alli got on to the end of a long pass from Alderweireld which he headed over both Foster and the bar.  Then Janmaat crossed for Deeney but, again, the header was over the bar.  Tottenham threatened again as a through ball released Lucas but Kabasele was on hand to disrupt and Foster was able to gather the ball.  There was another chance for the visitors as Foster failed to control a cross from Eriksen, Kabasele’s attempted clearance fell to Lucas but the shot was well wide of the target.  Then a free kick was played back to Eriksen whose through ball was turned just wide by Alli, who was offside anyway.  A corner from Eriksen was headed clear to Davies whose shot flew wide.  Tottenham’s final chance of the half came from a Vertonghen cross that was headed over by Sánchez.  In time added on, Watford finally launched another attack, but Deeney’s shot from distance was weak and easily gathered by Vorm.  So we reached half time with the game goalless due to a decent defensive performance by the Hornets who had restricted the opposition’s chances without posing much of a threat themselves.

Celebrating Deeney’s goal with the camera in the way

The half time interview was with Ben Wilmot, still basking in the glory of his magnificent performance against Reading in midweek.  I look forward to seeing him develop as, at 18, he already appears to have Cathcart levels of assurance, which is a great thing.

The first chance of the second half fell to Eriksen, whose shot just missed the target.  The Dane had another chance soon after, but his shot from distance was easy for Foster.  The first booking of the game went to Capoue for pulling back Vertonghen.  The visitors took the lead in the 53rd minute. It was a scrappy goal that took a deflection off Doucouré and flew past Foster.  There was a certain inevitability to the goal and we settled back to witness the defeat that was sure to come.  But the players were of a completely different mindset and the goal seemed to galvanise them into action.  First Gray hit a powerful shot that was just over the bar.  Then Deeney hit a shot across goal that took a deflection off Vertonghen before coming back off the inside of the post.  So close!  Spurs were rattled and Dembélé went into the referee’s book for pulling down Hughes.  Holebas took the resulting free kick which was met by Deeney who powered the header home to level the game and send the Rookery wild.

Celebrating Cathcart’s goal (with no sign of Cathcart)

Gracia made an immediate substitution bringing Success on for Gray, I have to say that I wasn’t convinced that this was the correct move.  What do I know?  Watford continued to threaten as Janmaat crossed for Pereyra who headed the ball just wide.  Watford’s second goal came from another assist by Holebas, this time from corner and it was Cathcart who rose to head home.  I love Cathcart.  He calmly gets on with his job in defence, never drawing attention to himself until he pops up in the opposition box to put the Hornets into the lead against one of the best teams in the country.  Spurs made their first substitution replacing Alderweireld with Llorente.  They had a decent chance to strike back through Eriksen who tried a shot from distance, but Foster was equal to it.  Into the last five minutes of the game and there was a substitute for each side as Hughes made way for Chalobah, a change that was greeted with loud cheers for both players, and Winks replaced Dembélé for the visitors.  From the Rookery, I was convinced that Spurs had scored from their next attempt, but Kane’s header had flown over the bar and hit the outside of the net.  Each side made a final change with Rose coming on for Davies and Mariappa replacing Pereyra.  In the last minute of time added on, Spurs won a free kick in a dangerous position.  My heart was pounding as it was taken and there were loud cheers as it deflected for a corner.  The cheers were even louder when the corner dropped to Rose and he belted the shot well over the bar.

The return of Chalobah to Vicarage Road

The final whistle was greeted with a roar from all the stands.  Elton and his boys were celebrating in the Upper GT and we were all joining Capoue in a celebratory dance.  Deeney won a well-deserved man of the match award.  It is only a couple of months since a number of Watford fans were saying that he was past his sell-by date.  How wrong they were, we wouldn’t be without him now.  It was a terrific team effort and, based on the second half performance, we thoroughly deserved the win.

As one who was lucky enough to live through the first GT era, I can be a bit blasé about these results, after all I have seen us beat Spurs 5-1 at White Hart Lane.  But reading the reactions of my Watford friends to this result shows how much this means.  Watford are currently joint top of the table with 100% record and looking like a team who will be a tough prospect for anyone this season.

Taylor, Rostron and Cox – the three Captains

It was all smiles as we met up after the game.  But there was only time for a quick drink and then it was to the Palace Theatre for the first Tales from the Vicarage Captains evening.  It was much more low-key than some previous events, but an absolute joy to hear Wilf Rostron speak.  I had heard that he had fallen out of love with football, so it was lovely to hear him speak so warmly of his time at Watford and the way that he, and particularly his wife, Jill, had been welcomed to the club.  Obviously, the sending off that meant he missed the Cup Final came up, but he is philosophical about that now (I am not, angry tears were still pricking my eyes as he spoke).  He looks incredibly fit and said that (at 61) he plays in an over-40s league.  Similarly, Les Taylor says that he achieved all of his footballing dreams at Watford, including leading the team out at Wembley in place of Rostron.  His talk of hitting the Watford Observer clock made me smile as I remembered his shooting exploits.  Neil Cox had a more challenging time, not seeing eye to eye with either GT or Vialli, but he will always be remembered as being the captain that convinced his players to agree to a wage deferral when the club were in trouble.  Graham Simpson did not come out of that one well as he tried to avoid paying the players back the money they were owed.  A reminder of less pleasant times at the club.  As always, it was a wonderful evening that evoked many happy memories.

Jose Holebas, my new hero

Since the Pozzo take-over and the influx of players from all over the World we have often been told by those outside the club that these “foreigners” don’t care about the club or the fans and this is not the Watford that we all grew up with.  On social media on Sunday night, there were two examples that showed that this is far from the truth.  First was a video of Roberto Pereyra meeting a young fan with Down syndrome.  To see Roberto interacting with this youngster brought tears to my eyes.  He may not speak a lot of English, but his actions spoke volumes and the boy was beaming.  Then I saw that young Lexe Allaway had received Jose Holebas’s shirt after the game.  When her Mum was asked how this had come about, it seems that they had met a day before the Palace game and Jose had said he would meet her after that game to give her his shirt. True to his word he met her, but as he had scored from that ‘cross’ he asked Lexe if she minded if he kept the shirt.  Of course, she was more than happy for him to have it after his wonderful goal, and he promised that she could have his shirt the following week.  Her Mum warned her that he may well have forgotten a week later. Instead, true to his word, he waited for her after the match, handed her the shirt and made time to chat to her about her football.  Jose has a (well-deserved) reputation for being a miserable so-and-so, but to show such kindness to a young fan is a measure of the man and he has gone way up in my estimation.

I grew up supporting a wonderful club that gave us many happy memories on the pitch, but was a club where the fans were treated well and appreciated by the players.  I am so delighted that, even though football has changed massively over the past 30 years, the current generation of youngsters are having the same experiences that we did.  Watford truly is a special club.

 

The Youngsters Shine Against the Royals

So good to see Chalobah back from injury

I was rather pleased when the draw for the second round of the League Cup gave us a trip to Reading as it is almost a home game for me.  Even more so when the game was scheduled for Wednesday evening as I was already planning to work from home due to a dental check-up in Maidenhead in the afternoon.  I always have a chat about football with my dentist, who is really an Arsenal fan but used to be a Reading Season Ticket holder who gave up going because the team were hopeless.  We chatted about the game and he warned that they may cause us problems.  I assured him that, given our recent history in this cup, I was taking nothing for granted.  Once he gave me the all clear, I was on my way to Reading where I was in the pre-match pub far too early, although not as early as the chap in the Watford shirt who was already sitting in the corner.  I bought myself a lovely real cider and then found a little booth to hide away in and wait for the rest of my party who arrived in due course.

On arrival at the ground, the bag search was being undertaken by a woman whose main concern seemed to be to find some goodies that could be shared with her.  It always makes the day a bit nicer when the stewards have a sense of humour.  As our pre-match pub is excellent for beer but doesn’t serve food, I had a chicken balti pie inside the ground that I have to say was very good indeed.  While waiting for kick-off, Sweet Caroline was played which apparently is a Reading favourite but made me a little homesick for Fenway Park.

Prodl lines up a free kick

Team news was that Gracia had made 11 changes with debuts for Navarro, Masina, Wilmot and Quina and the return of Chalobah, so the starting line-up was Gomes; Navarro, Mariappa, Prödl, Masina; Femenía, Chalobah, Wilmot, Quina, Sema; Success.  I have to say that looked like a pretty decent team.  Reading had also made 8 changes, but the main Watford connection with the opposition was in the dug out in the person of Sir Nigel Gibbs.

The first chance of the game came from a Navarro free kick from distance that was an easy save for Walker in the Reading goal.  Early in the game there was a switch in formation to three at the back with Wilmot in the middle and Navarro and Masina playing as wing backs.  Watford’s next chance also came from a free kick from Chalobah that just cleared the bar.  From a corner, Femenía played the ball back into the box where it was parried and fell to Mariappa whose shot was blocked before Wilmot tried a cheeky back heel that was cleared.  Young Wilmot was having an impressive start and he was soon in action at the other end of the pitch cutting out a dangerous ball into the box.  The first chance for the home side came in the 23rd minute as Watford failed to clear a cross into their box allowing McNulty to volley over the bar.  Then Watford launched a great break, Success got to the byline and put in a low cross, but nobody was there to take advantage.  Soon after, a corner from Sema reached Femenía who played it in to Success whose shot missed the target.  He wasn’t to make the same mistake a minute later as Masina played the ball back to him, he took one touch and then finished past Walker.  Reading had a chance to break back from a free kick which was launched over the wall, but Gomes dropped to make an easy catch.  So Watford reached half time a goal to the good and looking uncharacteristically comfortable.

Celebrating Quina’s magnificent strike

Reading made a change at the break bringing Sims on for Swift.  The second half started with a decent chance for the Hornets.  After a fast break, Navarro crossed for Success who headed just over the bar.  Soon after, the Watford striker had another chance to increase the lead, this time from a Masina cross, but he nodded wide.  The travelling Hornets were in good voice and a lovely bit of skill from Quina was greeted with an appreciative chorus of “sexy football”.  There was a decent chance to get a second as Chalobah played a lovely ball for Femenía to run on to, but the shot was blocked by the Reading keeper.  The second Watford goal was a thing of beauty, the ball was cleared to Quina outside the box, he advanced a couple of steps and then took the advice of the bloke standing behind me who was yelling ‘hit it’ and powered a rocket into the top corner.  It was quite a strike. There were changes for both sides soon after as Baldock and former Watford youngster Yiadom came on for O’Shea and Richards for the home side.  For the Hornets, Sema made way for Okaka.  The Watford substitute had an immediate chance to get on the score sheet as he got on the end of a looping cross from Femenía, but his glancing header was wide of the target.  There was a rare chance for the home side as a ball dropped to Kelly inside the box, but he hit it over the bar.  Quina’s enjoyable debut came to an end as he was replaced by Doucouré.  He looked shattered as he left to field to an ovation from the travelling Hornets.  Watford were still pushing to extend their lead as a shot from Navarro was pushed over the bar.  At the other end McNulty lobbed Gomes, but Mariappa was back to clear the ball.  Reading threatened again with a decent shot from distance from Méïté, but Gomes was down to make the save.  Watford’s final change saw Hughes come on for Chalobah, it was so great to see him back in action and managing almost 90 minutes.  Reading had one last chance to reduce the deficit from a free kick, but the shot was easily caught by Gomes.

Gomes back in goal

So, in the end, it was a convincing and comfortable win for the Hornets.  The second string put in a very good performance which gives a pleasing indication of the strength of the squad.  Of the new guys, Wilmot was the most impressive, looking very assured in the middle of the back three.  The other youngster, Quina, made some lovely touches and his goal was a worldie.  These two look to have very promising futures.  It was also a delight to see Chalobah back on the pitch and putting in a great shift for almost the entire 90 minutes.  He was beaming as he responded to the chants of “Chalobah, my lord” after the final whistle.

Also, fair play to the 2514 fans who travelled to the game.  It is not a long journey but, given our recent record in this competition, they would have travelled more in hope than expectation, so thoroughly deserved that win.

We have Spurs next in both the league and the cup.  I don’t expect anything from either game, but if this team continues to perform as they have so far this season, we are in for a rather enjoyable season.

When Harry met Wilf

Lovely Ray Lew

The build-up to this game was all about Harry Hornet who, in answer to a question from a journalist, had been branded a ‘disgrace’ by Roy Hodgson for an incident two years ago that I doubt Hodgson had actually ever seen, when Harry collapsed behind Zaha while the post-match handshakes were happening.  Sticking up for your player is all well and good but Roy lost all credibility when he claimed, with a straight face, that Zaha didn’t dive.  Sorry, Roy he gets booked for it, which was what provoked Harry’s action.  You couldn’t help but feel that Roy’s words would come back to haunt him.

For the second weekend running, travel plans had to be adjusted due to the closure of Euston, although the switch to the Met line wasn’t too much of a hardship.  When I boarded at Finchley Road, I was happy to spot Swansea Steve, so was treated to delightful company all the way to the West Herts.  Like many others, I arrived before the doors opened, so joined Don in his car to shelter from the rain which was chucking it down by this point.  When we got in the warm, the jerk chicken and rice certainly hit the spot.

Holebas on the attack

Unsurprisingly, the team news was that Gracia was sticking with the team who started both previous games: Foster; Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart, Janmaat; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucoure, Hughes; Deeney, Gray.  The Palace line-up included unlovely former loanee, Townsend, and the very lovely Ray Lewington was in their dugout.  When the teams were announced, Ray was welcomed back by Emma and given a warm ovation by the crowd.

The game started well for the visitors, although the first action of note was a booking for Capoue for a foul on Zaha.  It has to be said that this looked like a soft challenge from the stands, so was greeted with “Same old Zaha, always cheating,” and “One Harry Hornet.”  The television pictures showed it to be a nastier tackle than had been apparent at the time and one atypical for Capoue.  The first chance fell to the Hornets as a Janmaat cross was met by a looping header from Deeney that was easily caught by Hennessy.  The next into the referee’s book was Zaha for a foul on the saintly Holebas.

Foster launches a kick upfield

Palace should have taken the lead in the 12th minute when a cross from Townsend was met by a fantastic header by Benteke, which looked to be flying in until Foster pulled off a magnificent one handed save to keep the game goalless.  Foster saved the Hornets again soon after as McArthur broke into the box and was one-on-one with the keeper who spread himself and blocked the shot, another excellent save.  Watford then had a half chance as Hughes tried a shot that flew wide of the far post.  There was a much better attempt soon after as Janmaat’s cross was volleyed goalwards by Pereyra, the shot deflected over the target.  Another Janmaat cross ran through a couple of dummies to Pereyra, this time Hennessey pulled off a low save.  McArthur broke into the Watford box again, this time he was stopped from shooting by a great tackle from Holebas and Foster was able to gather the ball.  Some niggle between Zaha and Janmaat while waiting for a throw-in lead to the Watford man being booked while his equally culpable counterpart was allowed to walk, presumably as the referee did not want to show a red card.  Watford were having more of an impact late in the half as a shot from the edge of the area by Doucouré was blocked.  Then Gray played in Janmaat whose shot was just wide of the far post.  At the other end Benteke was released and looked sure to break the deadlock when Kabasele made a wonderful saving tackle to avert the danger.  So we reached half time goalless after an even 45 minutes of football.

Congratulating Pereyra on the first goal

During the break, they announced that there would be a reunion of the boys of 1999 at Shendish in December.  Micah Hyde was on hand to talk about those days and to see him walking around the pitch with Richard Johnson afterwards made my heart sing.

Watford started the second half on the front foot as the Palace defence failed to clear a cross from Janmaat and the ball fell to Hughes whose shot was blocked.  Doucouré then did well to win the ball and play a one-two with Deeney, but his final shot was disappointingly wayward.  Doucouré then turned provider laying the ball back to Pereyra whose shot was over the bar.  Watford took the lead in the 53rd minute with a superb goal as Capoue picked the ball up in the Watford half, ran half the length of the field beating a couple of men on the way before finding Pereyra who curled the ball past Hennessey into the bottom corner.  It all went a bit quiet for a while until Benteke tried a curler but his was wide of the far post.

Congratulations for Holebas. I swear he is smiling

Then a ball was played out to Holebas who crossed the ball over Hennessey and into the top corner.  It came out of nowhere.  I’m sure that made him smile, it certainly did us as we were roaring with laughter.  Each side then made a substitution with Watford bringing Sema on for Gray and the visitors replacing Schlupp with Meyer.  Palace pulled a goal back with 12 minutes to go as Zaha snuck along the byline and shot from a tight angle through Foster’s legs to give the Hornets a very nervous end to the game.  Watford could have sealed the points as a Holebas corner was met by the head of Kabasele, but the header was wide of the target.  Palace made a further change bringing Sørloth on for Benteke.  Pereyra then picked up a silly booking for pulling Ward back.  Watford’s final substitution saw Success come on for Deeney who handed the captain’s armband to Sema.  The substitute had a chance to finish the game off in the last minute of time added on, but his shot was weak and easily saved by Hennessey.  Unfortunately this allowed Palace a great chance to level the game as a corner from Milivojevic reached Ward who looked sure to head it past Foster, but instead it flew the wrong side of the post (for them) and Watford secured the three points and kept their 100% record.

Challenging at a corner

It was no classic, but it had been a decent battling performance by the Hornets who deserved the win.  This is really looking like a great team and it was pleasing to see Kabasele given the man of the match award after a very solid performance at the back.  Foster deserves plaudits for the two early saves that kept Watford in the game.  But it was a team performance and the celebrations at the final whistle were mighty, indicating a very happy and cohesive group of players.

But what about the main man?  Harry was on his best behaviour.  Chants of “he’s gonna dive in a minute” from the 1881 were met with a shake of the head and a slapped wrist gesture.  That is, until the final whistle had gone and the players had left the pitch when he went full Klinsmann along the ground to cheers from the crowd.

For a brief moment after the game, Watford were second in the table to Liverpool which was a flashback to our most successful season.  I don’t think we will finish anywhere near as high as that, and we have a couple of difficult games coming up against Spurs and Man Utd, but those are free hits.  All we want from this team is to carry on putting in solid performances and winning points off the teams that will be around us at the end of the season.  So far so good on that front and long may that continue.

 

Hooray for London Buses

Kabasele tracking Barnes

In my enthusiasm to buy train tickets for the first away game of the season, I completely forgot about Burnley’s involvement in the Europa League, so was booked on the 8:03 from King’s Cross via Leeds on Saturday morning.  When the game was moved to the Sunday, I looked at changing the ticket but found that the first train leaving London on Sunday would not arrive in time for me to make kick-off.  Just as I was contemplating a lonely Saturday night in Burnley, a dear friend offered to show me the sights of Bradford, so I was treated to a Hockney exhibition followed by curry, beer and putting the world to rights.  All rather lovely.

We made good time on the journey from Bradford to Burnley on Sunday morning and were in the Cricket Club by 11 and soon joined by a couple of VIPs from the club as well as the Happy Valley Horns and Kate and the two Janices who had caught the supporters’ coach at 6am.  The cricket club is a lovely friendly place and we were soon in conversation with a local who is clearly enjoying their European exploits.

On arrival at the turnstiles, the steward looked slightly aghast at my tightly packed overnight bag and the discovery of toiletries inside had her shaking her head, declaring them flammable and therefore not allowed inside the stadium.  Thankfully her supervisor decided that roll-on deodorant and lemon shower gel were not too dangerous in the hands of a middle-aged woman so I was allowed to keep them. I assured her that I wouldn’t put a match to them.

Holebas launches a throw to Pereyra

Team news was that Gracia had kept faith with the team who did so well last week, so the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Cathcart, Kabasele, Janmaat; Pereyra, Doucouré, Capoue, Hughes; Gray, Deeney.  Burnley featured former Watford loanee Jack Cork and, of course, had Sean Dyche and Ian Woan in the dugout.

As I was on a flight to the US last Saturday for work, I missed the Brighton game, so I was really looking forward to my season starting properly.  But, as Watford hadn’t scored away from home since January 2nd and we never get anything at Burnley, my expectations were pretty low prior to kick-off.  Thankfully they were confounded as the Hornets started brilliantly with a chance in the second minute as Deeney crossed for Gray, whose shot was blocked by Tarkowski.  The visitors took the lead a minute later as Deeney and Gray exchanged passes before the former Burnley man hit a superb volley that gave Hart no chance.  I am pleased to confirm that, despite the length of time that had elapsed since the last away goal, the travelling Hornets had not forgotten how to celebrate.  The home fans were not so happy and, as if in sympathy, the big screen in the opposite corner went blank.

Cathcart takes a free kick

Unfortunately, Watford’s lead was very short lived as Burnley won a corner and Tarkowski rose highest to head home for the equaliser.  The home side then had a period of dominance and had a great chance to take the lead as Gudmundsson curled a gorgeous free kick towards the Watford goal, but Foster pulled off a decent save to keep the scores level.  Gray should have done better after exchanging passes with Pereyra but his shot was mishit and flew wide.  At the other end a Cork shot was blocked and, in the ensuing goalmouth scramble some tenacious defending ensured that no Burnley player got a clear sight of goal before the ball was finally cleared.  The Hornets had a decent end to the half and could have regained the lead when Deeney tried a shot from distance, but Hart got a hand to it and kept it out.  The first caution of the game went to Hughes for a silly challenge on Ward that appeared to take place off the field when Watford had already won a throw-in.  The home side had one last chance to take the lead before half time as a cross-cum-shot from Hendrick was saved by Foster, it fell to Lennon, but Holebas made a terrific tackle to prevent the shot.  So we reached half time with honours even.  It has to be said that Burnley had slightly the better of the half, but it had been a good contest.

Celebrating Deeney’s goal

The second half started brilliantly for the Hornets as a blocked ball into the box rebounded to Doucouré, who played a gorgeous pass to Deeney, with only Hart to beat he made no mistake and the Hornets were ahead again.  It turns out that Watford away goals are like London buses, you don’t see one for over seven months and then three come along at once.  This time it was Hughes who intercepted a terrible ball from Lowton, advanced and found the bottom corner.  At this point, the travelling Hornets were beside themselves.  The first Burnley booking was born of frustration as Ward was cautioned for pulling Hughes down.  Watford had a decent chance to increase their lead as Capoue launched a long cross into the box, but it was just too far in front of Deeney. As the game reached the final quarter hour, both sides made substitutions as Barnes and Vokes came on for Wood and Hendrick for the home side and Sema replaced Gray for the visitors with Watford switching to just one up front.  Vokes almost made an instant impact as he met a Gudmundsson free kick with a header that flew just wide.  Each side made a further substitution as Taylor came on for Ward and Femenía replaced Will Hughes, who went off to a standing ovation.  With time running out, Sema had a great chance to grab a fourth goal for the Hornets, but his low shot was put out for a corner.  Watford’s final substitution came with a minute to go as Deeney made way for Success.  As the fourth official raised the board showing time added on, Vokes crossed for Mee but the shot was poor and missed the target.  There was a better-looking chance as a cross reached Barnes but the shot was met with a good catch from Foster and the flag was up for offside anyway.  There was another caution for the Hornets as Janmaat was booked for a late tackle that was totally unnecessary.  But the final whistle went on a very satisfying win for the Hornets.

The Royal Dyche

As we streamed out of the ground, there were beaming smiles among the Watford fans who couldn’t quite believe what they had seen.  Not just three goals away from home, but against a very decent Burnley side at Turf Moor.  The first half had been even but, once Watford took the lead in the second half, the home side never looked like they would get back in the game.  It was great to see both Gray and Deeney on the scoresheet, they are playing very effectively together and making chances for each other and others.  There was some lovely football played, with three excellent goals, but that sublime pass from Doucouré was the pick of the bunch.  I think most Watford fans consider him to be the signing of the Summer but, after missing all of the pre-season games, he could have been forgiven if he had taken a few games to get back to his best.  On Sunday he was running after everything and playing as if he had never had a break.  He wasn’t the only one, another pleasing contrast to last season is the fitness of the players.  Most games last season started at pace but fizzled out after about 70 minutes as the players tired.  On Sunday, they were working until the end and saw the game out effectively.  A lot of people were nervous at the start of the season, but this is looking like a very strong side and they are playing the sort of football that we knew they were capable of last season, but so rarely saw.

On the way back to the station, I was delighted to pass the Royal Dyche pub.  The sign is a thing of beauty and I wish Sean luck for the rest of the season, but am delighted that it was the Watford fans who were smiling on Sunday.