Pride Overcomes Heartbreak at Wembley

Before the Cup Final in 1984

I will start by saying that I can’t bring myself to write a full match report.  Everyone who is reading this will have seen the match and I am sure, like me, you don’t want to relive it.  But what I do want to relive is the build-up to the game and the experiences of the day.

My build-up started straight after the semi-final when I received an email from David Hyams suggesting that we create a good luck banner for the final.  The idea was to collect messages from fans from all over the world and display them on a banner to present to the players before the game.  Banners had been produced on three previous occasions, for the 1999, 2006 and 2013 play-off finals.  My involvement in 1999 was limited to having my photo taken with the banner outside Wembley, but I got involved in 2006 and 2013 helping to publicise the initiative and liaising with the club.  On this occasion, we had a great point of initial contact at the club in Dave Messenger, who immediately supported the venture and put us in touch with Hamish in the media team.  Jon Marks then got involved, providing us with a great background photo to use on the banner and arranging for us to go to the ground to present it to the players.

On the big screen looking as nervous as I felt

My next contribution was a couple of weeks before the game when Jon Marks asked if I wanted to be one of the fans featuring in the FA’s pre-match video.  I was incredibly busy at work, so taking a Monday morning off for filming was really not a good idea.  Needless to say, I agreed to do it.  The filming was taking place at 10:30 on a Monday morning.  I arrived at the same time as the Watford Ladies’ captain, Helen Ward.  I was also told that Nigel Gibbs was currently being interviewed and my heart skipped a bit.  I knew that this was something out of the ordinary when we were sent to the players’ lounge in order to meet the make-up artist.  My request to her was to give me some eyebrows and remove one of my chins.  Bless her, she did her best.  Then Helen and I went down to the changing room (thrilling!!) where she was to be filmed.  They sent me back to the lounge so that my spontaneity wasn’t spoilt!  When they finally came to collect me, I was taken out into Occupation Road for the filming.  It took a while to find an angle which allowed them to use the Watford FC on the outside of the SEJ stand as background.  I have to admit that I was a little reserved as it started.  I’m not very good with all the jingoistic stuff, so told them that Roy Moore (who was the next to be filmed) would be great for that element.  Then they asked me to talk about Graham Taylor, Elton John, Heurelheo Gomes, Troy Deeney and generally my love for Watford and there was no stopping me.  I must admit that I often see those pieces and wonder why the participants have no dignity.  On this occasion, dear reader, dignity was completely dispensed with.

Presenting the banner to the players (credit Alan Cozzi)

The league season had finished with a disappointing set of results, but the thing that upset me most was the red card shown to José Holebas.  I remember when Wilf Rostron was sent off at Luton in 1984.  The photo of Wilf’s face when he realised that he would miss the cup final is etched on my memory.  The idea that another player would suffer the same fate was almost too much to take.  I stayed in Watford on the Sunday night after the game, with the idea that I would spend the evening writing my match report.  I was so upset after the game that I couldn’t bring myself even to make a start.  On Monday morning, I drove over to the training ground at London Colney arriving on schedule and was shown to the media room where some of our party were already gathered.  Jon told us the plans for the presentation and then we were taken to the training pitch to wait for the players.  As they started to gather, Javi was introduced to each of us.  When Troy arrived, he recognised me, so said hello and gave me a kiss.  Then David showed him the memento pack that he had made with a replica of the banner and print-out of the messages and the video from the semi-final with the voice over from GT.  Troy could easily have said thanks and dismissed him, but he spent the time listening to David talking about what we had done, and he appeared interested and engaged.  I love him for doing that.  As the players gathered around the banner, it was lovely to see them reading the messages.  The photo with the banner was taken, the players left to start training and we went home.

Fuzz in all her magnificent glory

I had spotted José Holebas at the training ground, but he lurked in the background and looked a bit down, although I am not sure that is unusual.  There had been some discussion amongst the fans there about the appeal going in to the FA and there were varying opinions on what the outcome would be.  I was not hopeful.  I worked from home in the afternoon, which was just as well because, when the news came through that the red card had been rescinded, I found myself sobbing with relief and joy for José.  When we went to Wembley in 1984, my sister took a banner reading “Wilf is Innocent”.  I was so thankful that we wouldn’t have to cross out “Wilf” and write in “José”.

In the week before the game, the club put out a series of videos with the tag line “Imagine if”.  The From the Rookery End guys put out a couple of pre-final podcasts including a great interview with Ben Foster.  Then there were the Hornet Heaven specials.  All of these were wonderful, but the Hornet Heaven episode entitled “35 Years of Hurt” was just incredible.  Added to that we had fans uploading their photos from 1984 and the memories of the game, often involving family members who are no longer with us.  I spent a fortune on tissues this week.

Pre-match, I tried to follow the same pattern as for the semi-final.  I packed my bag with essentials including my scarf with the badge featuring Toddy and Steve Brister and the GT memorial game badge.  I made sure that I took the lucky seashell that Pete Fincham gave me at Woking.  I also added my first scarf, bought in 1979, which accompanied me to Wembley in 1984.  That may have been my mistake.  I took the train into Paddington listening to the latest Hornet Heaven episodes and then took the wrong exit out of the station (as I had previously) and again took an ill-advised detour on the way to the pub.

Fuzz and the family at Wembley (as is my usual practice, my yellow shirt and scarf were donned when I got to my seat)

Richard had booked a table for 11am, when the pub opened, under the assumption that leaving it much later would mean that we would arrive to a packed pub and have to evict those on our table.  I arrived just before the advertised opening time to find the doors open and a couple of guys lurking outside.  I entered a pub that was empty apart from the bar staff who looked a little askance, before breaking out in broad smiles and welcoming me, showing me to our table (the same one as we had for the semi-final) and offering me a drink.  I thought about having a coffee, but that seemed rude, so a pint of Doom Bar it was.  The guys that had been lurking outside also came in and turned out to be the door staff for later in the day, when there was more than one customer.  Thankfully Richard wasn’t far behind me and our party was soon in full swing.  As the “Happy Valley” contingent arrived, I was able to hand out the last of the match tickets that I had purchased (they had better nerves than I did, being able to wait until matchday to receive their tickets).  The ticket handover was accompanied by personalised bracelets that Fuzz had made for all of our party which were very gratefully received.  When Mike arrived, much was made of his winning the Supporter of the Season award.  Then we had lunch and more beer and waited for the designated time to leave the pub as I got more and more nervous.

35 years on, Rose’s daughters accompanied her to Wembley

The journey to Wembley was as simple as last time and we were through the turnstiles very quickly. It has to be said that, despite the strict bag policy, the search was the very definition of cursory.  When we reached the upper level, my family, who had travelled in from Hertfordshire so not joined us in the pub in central London, were all there to greet us.  As was my friend, Farzana.  Now, Fuzz had long talked about she and I dressing as Hornets if we ever went to a cup final.  Thankfully, after years of telling her that I would do nothing of the kind, she had decided to do her own thing.  “Think 70s Elton John.”  The last time that she had promised such a costume, she turned up dressed as a chicken.  This time, the costume was a work of art.  She had added bling and feathers to a yellow mac and it was absolutely gorgeous.  We had photos taken, but then she had to meet her people as so many admired her attire.

The band playing Abide with Me

We were in our seats in plenty of time for the pre-match entertainment, although we had missed the marching band playing Z-cars.  Thankfully, Annie Mac had added it to her play-list and it got an amazing cheer.  She followed with Elton’s “Are you ready for love?” and then “Wonderwall”, which was roundly booed by the Watford fans.  Next up was the FA film.  For Watford, Luther, Gibbsy and Roy Moore said their pieces before my face appeared, to cheers from my family.  I think (hope) that I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself.  This was followed by Abide with Me which always brings memories of Elton’s tears in the stands in 1984.  Then the FA Cup was brought onto the pitch by Tony Book and Luther Blissett.  It was lovely seeing Luther as part of the proceedings, I well remember seeing him walk around the pitch in 84, at the end of his sabbatical in Milan and being so sad that he wasn’t able to play.  At this point, a banner was displayed for each club.  City’s included the dates of their previous cup wins and a picture of Tony Book who had been on the winning team in 1969.  Watford’s showed a shirt with “Ossie 10” on it and “Ossie with us at Wembley” in honour of young Watford fan, Ossie Robinson who died of neuroblastoma in 2017.  That was a lovely gesture by the club.

Troy deep in conversation with Will Hughes

The teams came out and Troy was joined by Elton’s sons, Zachary and Elijah, with their Dad working in Copenhagen so unable to make the game.

The Cup Final team was, as expected, Gomes; Holebas, Mariappa, Cathcart, Femenía; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Deeney.

At last the game kicked off.  City started brightly but, on 10 minutes, the Hornets broke, Deulofeu played in Pereyra who shot straight at the onrushing Ederson.  There was a shout for a penalty as a shot from Doucouré seemed to hit Kompany on the arm, but it wasn’t given and Abdoulaye was booked for his protest.  City took the lead on 26 minutes.  It looked a bit of a soft goal, Doucouré lost possession, Sterling broke forward, the Watford defence were unable to clear the ball and Silva finished from a tight angle.  The second goal came after a series of corners, finally Silva found Jesus who beat Gomes.  It appeared that Sterling had applied the final touch, but the ball had already crossed the line and the goal was awarded to Jesus.  I was feeling pretty miserable at this point, so I was grateful for a moment that made me smile as Holebas lost the ball in the City half but sprinted back to make a magnificent recovering tackle.  So, we were two goals down at half time.  There were some among our group making positive noises after our comeback in the semi-final, but it was hard to see us coming back from this against City.

Gathering for a corner

The second half started with the ball in the Watford net from a diving header, but Jesus was in an offside position, so the goal was disallowed.  Watford then created a couple of decent chances, but seemed reluctant to take a shot, which is the story of our season.  Ten minutes into the half Guardiola made his first substitution bringing De Bruyne on for Mahrez.  Now that seemed just mean and the feeling was compounded when De Bruyne scored the third after receiving a square ball from Jesus, dribbling past Gomes and finding the net.  At this point “Blue Moon” was ringing out from the City end.  De Bruyne also had a hand in the fourth, playing a through ball for Jesus who was one-on-one with Gomes and made no mistake.  At this point I pleaded “Please make this stop,” before commenting to my sister on how amazing the 1881 in the stand below us were, still singing their hearts out.  I was joining in as much as I could and certainly joined the “One Graham Taylor” chant that came on 72 minutes.  Despite the scoreline, Watford hadn’t given up, and Success and Capoue both created chances but couldn’t get the ball in the net.  City’s fifth came as a low cross from Silva was converted by Sterling.  At this point something remarkable happened, the flags started waving in the Watford end.  First a few and then the stand was a sea of red and yellow, all around us getting to their feet to wave the flags and sing our hearts out for the lads.    The sixth City goal came when a shot from Sterling was turned onto the post by Gomes, but Raheem was there to finish from the rebound.  At this point the guy next to me muttered that was a joint record defeat in the final, not something that I wanted to hear.  Thankfully there were only a couple of minutes of added time.  Stones had a great chance to score a seventh, but Gomes saved with his feet.  The final whistle went to cheers from all corners of the ground.  I was so proud of the Watford fans who were still on their feet waving their flags and applauding their team.  The players must have been devastated but when they came to acknowledge the fans, there was a lovely moment as they stood to applaud a crowd that applauded back in recognition of all that they have done this season.

It must have been a long walk as the team took the steps up to the Royal Box, so it was lovely to see Gino Pozzo greeting Javi and the lads so warmly.  A good number of us waited to applaud the winners as Vincent Kompany lifted the cup.  I must admit that he is a player that I have always liked.  I was interested to see that Guardiola did not go up with the players, he was chatting with the Watford players with Deulofeu (who would have played for him at Barcelona) getting a particularly warm hug.

It took a while to leave the ground.  On the way out, I was delighted to bump into a woman who used to have a season ticket behind us in the Rookery.  She gave it up when she had her first child, which didn’t seem too long ago until she introduced us to her youngest who is now 9 years old.

On the way back to the station, we bumped into Steve Terry who was very chatty and felt that the result was unfair on the lads.

The banner says it all

I headed back to the pub in desperate need of a glass of wine.  I was feeling pretty low and it must have been obvious as Jacque gave me a warm hug saying that she had never seen me look so down after a game.  I must admit that I didn’t expect us to win, but the thrashing was very hard to take.  Mostly for the players who have been magnificent for most of this season and really didn’t deserve to be beaten that badly.  A City fan that we encountered in the pub reflected that they were a good team, but not often that good.  They clearly wanted to finish their season on a high and did so and there was nothing that we could do about it.

As the wine flowed and we reflected on our season, it was time to put the game in some perspective.  The defeat was awful and will hurt for a long time, but it is always the good times that you remember most.  For most of us, the abiding memory of 2013 is that amazing semi-final win against Leicester.  Going back to 1987, the quarter-final win at Arsenal remains one of my most fondly remembered games in the FA Cup.  In years to come, the semi-final against Wolves will be much talked about in a way that the final won’t be.

As I received messages of commiseration today, my response was that it really hurt, but this season has been the best that I have experienced since the glory days of Graham Taylor.  I am so thankful to Gino Pozzo and Scott Duxbury for what they have done for Watford.  In my time following the Hornets, I have seen many highs but also many lows.  I lived through times when I thought that I would no longer have a club to support. These are great times for the club, but we can never take them for granted. That is why I was so proud of the Watford fans yesterday.   To give the team such incredible support when they are being badly beaten is the mark of a true fan in my eyes.  “We’ll support you ever more”, doesn’t mean only when they are winning.  The Watford fans as a whole were amazing and the lovely people that I meet at games, either in the pub beforehand or in the stadium, are a massive part of what makes going to watch Watford special for me.

It has been a tough end to the season, but the fixtures are out on 13th June.  Who knows what joys next season will bring.

Come on you Hornets!!

No Way, Jose

Don and I with Capoue and Mariappa

The end of season dinner took place last Thursday and was a really lovely evening.  The first person of note that I encountered was Gino Pozzo. As he walked past me, I thanked him and he smiled. He was busy at that point, so I didn’t bother him.  The Taylor family were out in force as usual and I had a hug from Rita and a chat with Karen.

One of our party is an old friend of Caroline Robinson, so was delighted to be there to see Paul inducted into the Hall of Fame. Paul’s speech was really heart-warming. He spoke with such passion about his time at Watford and how he didn’t want to leave. He also paid warm tribute to Luther, Gibbsy and, of course, GT in the course of which he thanked Rita for all that they did for him. Our present leadership did him proud as he was given a table for 10 so his parents and in-laws were there with Paul, Caroline and their 4 children rather than sitting at home baby-sitting.  His youngest son spent the rest of the evening walking around clutching his trophy.

Javi had a smile and a hug for everyone

Young player of the season was Domingos Quina. His message was that he just wants to play. I hope that we see a lot more of him.  Players’ Player was Ben Foster who was rightly lauded for his positive attitude and sense of humour.  Despite a sterling effort by Alice to garner enough votes for José Holebas, Gerard Deulofeu won the Individual Performance of the Season for his tremendous substitute performance at the semi-final. He also won the Goal of the Season (of course). He paid tribute to his teammates and said that it was all about winning as a team. Last year I was trying to persuade him that Watford was a much better location than Barcelona. This year he seemed very happy to have made the move.

Player of the Season was a fight between Holebas, Foster and Etienne Capoue.  Capoue was the very worthy winner and his speech was lovely. “I love my club and I love the fans.” He is such a warm, smiley guy. I have loved watching him on the pitch this season and he was equally lovely off the pitch.

Javi was surrounded by fans all evening and had a smile and a hug for all of them.  The same was true, as it is every year, of Troy and Heurelho. Both Watford legends who have so much time for the fans.  I love them both.

But I think my highlight of the evening was my second encounter with Gino. I had spent the evening saying “Thank-you” to all the players and staff that I met, but Gino deserved that extra heartfelt thanks, especially with the recent re-emergence of Bassini bringing back so many horrible memories. Gino and his wife were absolutely lovely, countering my thanks with their own for my support of the club. I came away a little gobsmacked and very touched.

The jumper from the 84 cup final, a thing of great beauty

Sunday was the sixth anniversary of the play-off semi-final against Leicester.  A game that must be among the favourites of all Watford fans who were in attendance.  I still howl at the injustice when the penalty is given and squeal with delight at the double save, shout “don’t try to shoot” at Hoggy and then DEENEY!!!!  The memory gives me goosepimples and reminds me why I love football so much.

I was in Watford bright and early in order to visit the exhibition at the Museum.  As I walked down the High Street, I encountered a chancer selling dodgy looking merchandise and wearing a shirt bearing the legend “Garcia’s Cup Final Heroes.”  I said, “You do know his name is Gracia.”  He laughed, “Yes, I’ll fix it tomorrow.”  Hmmm.

On arrival at the museum, I was very happy to see my friend, Sarah, welcoming visitors.  While there I took the opportunity to buy the “Hornet Heaven” collection so I will have something to read during the close season.  The exhibition was a look back at our previous Wembley finals and was absolutely lovely.  There were lots of mementoes of the previous events, including medals that belonged to GT and Nigel Gibbs.  A wonderful jumper with “Taylor Made for Wembley” and the 84 players’ names knitted into bands around the waist and cuffs.  My friend, Farzana, had contributed knitted versions of Deeney, Gomes, Deulofeu and Mariappa.  The attention to detail was stunning.  As if that wasn’t enough, I was thrilled to be able to (don white gloves and) hold the Play-off final trophy.  What an honour.  Sarah and Farzana had put on a crafting day on Saturday for children (and adults) to come along and make rosettes and bunting.  The room was still open and I know of more than one adult who took the opportunity to make themselves a rosette for Wembley.  While there, a number of old friends arrived, so it was lovely to catch up.

Holding the play-off trophy

It says a lot about my matchday habits that I was horrified to be arriving at the West Herts at 1:30, which seemed to be obscenely late.  Still, I managed to fit in a couple of beers, some lunch, pork scratchings and fill a goody bag of sweets, so all the requisite boxes were ticked.

Team news was that Gracia had made two changes from the Chelsea game bringing Capoue and Kabasele in for Chalobah and Mariappa.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart, Femenía; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Deeney.

One of my pre-match rituals is to don my replica shirt when I get to my seat, so I was horrified when I could not find my shirt in my bag.  I panicked, came to terms with the fact that I hadn’t brought it, then took one last rummage and found it at the bottom, hidden under the books and swag that I had acquired at the museum.  What a relief!!

The Hornets started the game very brightly and Deulofeu had the ball in the net within the first minute, but I stayed in my seat as I had already seen that the flag was up for offside.  Geri had another decent chance soon after with a shot from the edge of the area, but Fabianski was down to make the save.  A lovely passage of play finished with a cross from Hughes that was blocked for a corner, from which Pereyra played the ball back to Doucouré whose shot was deflected wide.  From this corner, the ball dropped to Hughes whose overhead kick was saved by Fabianski.

Hughes shouting instructions as Capoue looks worried

The first chance for the visitors came as Antonio won a free kick on the edge of the box.  It was in a dangerous position, but Lanzini’s delivery was dreadful and went out of play.  So, it was against the run of play when Noble opened the scoring in the 15th minute after exchanging passes with Antonio, he beat Kabasele and finished into the bottom corner.  A dispiriting turn of events, but there was still a long way to go.  The Hammers had a chance to extend their lead from a free kick, Lanzini’s delivery was headed clear by Capoue, but only as far as Antonio whose shot from distance was wide of the target.  The visitors were forced into an early change as an injury to Fredericks meant that he had to be replaced by Zabaleta.  Deulofeu tested Fabianski again with a lovely shot, but the keeper was equal to it.  Then Pereyra received a cross from Holebas, turned and shot, but it was an easy catch for Fabianski.  Pereyra went on a run which looked very promising when Zabaleta slipped, allowing him a clear path to goal, but he squared the ball instead of shooting and it went out for a corner.   Yet again Watford were made to rue missed chances, as a shot from Antonio was turned onto the bar by Foster and Lanzini headed the rebound home.  Watford could have pulled one back with the last kick of the half, but Deeney’s close range shot was cleared off the line.  So we went into the break two goals down and, yet again, feeling that it didn’t reflect the balance of play.  West Ham had scored with their only two on-target shots of the half.

Mike being interviewed after winning the Supporter of the Season award

At half time, the Supporter of the Season award was presented to my dear friend, Mike Raggett, in honour of his sterling work for the Community Trust including the gorgeous book that was produced for their 25th anniversary that was pretty much all his own work (and was a lot of work).  He was introduced to the Hornets by his lovely wife, Dee, who we sadly lost a couple of years ago, so it was also a fitting tribute to her memory.  Academy player of the season was Daniel Phillips.  Watford Ladies Player of the Season was their captain, Helen Ward.

I was just sitting down for the second half after kick-off when I heard a shout and looked up to see Deulofeu rounding Fabianski and slotting the ball into the net.  He celebrated briefly, but the team quickly returned to the centre circle in order to ensure a quick restart.  The smiles were soon taken off our faces as Antonio went down under a challenge from Holebas.  He had been so easily knocked off his feet during the first half, that I was sure the referee would give the decision against him.  Instead, after intervention from the linesman, he brandished a red card and José was sent to the dressing room.  My blood ran cold.  The photo of Wilf Rostron when he realised that he was being sent off and would miss the cup final in 1984 is etched on my memory.  It still hurts that such a lovely bloke missed the biggest game of his career.  The idea that another left back, one who is so passionate and has been so great for us this season, would suffer the same fate was almost too much to bear.

Goalscorer Deulofeu

The Hornets had a great chance for an equaliser as Deulofeu broke into the box and, for once, did the unselfish thing and passed to Doucouré, the ball was cut out and cleared, if Geri had been selfish and taken a shot the game would likely have been level. Deulofeu had another chance almost immediately, this time he tried to chip the keeper, but Fabianski was able to make the catch.  Pereyra was the next one to fashion a chance as he ran into the box but was muscled off the ball and the chance was gone.  At the other end, there was a rare chance for the visitors as Arnautović hit a shot from distance well over the bar.  Gracia’s first substitution was also forced on him as Deulofeu picked up a knock and had to be replaced by Gray.  There was a shout for a penalty as Gray was bundled over in the box, but the referee gave a corner.  Watford threatened again as Femenía put a decent cross into the box, both Deeney and Gray jumped for it, but neither could make the necessary connection.  Another great opportunity went begging when a low cross from Hughes found Deeney, but the captain was unable to control the ball and it went out for a goal kick.  At the midpoint of the half, both teams made a substitution with Wilshere replacing Lanzini for the visitors and Hughes making way for Masina for the Hornets.  The visitors threatened again as Arnautović broke into the box and tried a shot, but Foster was equal to it.

Challenging in the West Ham box

West Ham’s third goal came soon after.  A volley from Anderson bounced back off the post and Arnautović was on hand to put in the rebound.  I think the heads of everyone to do with Watford dropped at this point.  West Ham had another chance as Antonio tried to chip Foster, but the Watford stopper did well to make the save.  Antonio went down again, this time under a challenge from Femenía in the box, and the referee pointed to the spot.  Before they could take the penalty, Gracia made his final substitution replacing Kabasele with Mariappa.  When Noble finally stepped up to take the spot kick, he sent Foster the wrong way and the rout was complete.  At this point the ground started to empty, much to my annoyance, which was voiced by a guy in the next block to me who sang “loyal supporters” to those departing.  The visitors made their final change with Sánchez coming on in place of Rice.  The Hornets had a couple of late chances to spare their blushes.  First, from a Mariappa throw-in, Deeney tried a back header but Fabianski made the save.  Then a cross from Doucouré found Deeney whose shot swept wide of the target.  There was just time for Capoue to pick up a record 14th yellow card for the season and the referee blew up to put us out of our misery.

Gomes addressing the crowd

I am pleased to report that the final whistle was met with applause from those left in the Rookery.  Those who stayed were treated to the presentation of the main player awards for the season, a farewell speech from Gomes, several of the kids having their Makka Salah moment (although there was a mini goalie involved on this occasion) and an unprovoked attack on Harry Hornet by a group of the younger children.  I have to say that we were highly amused to see Nate Chalobah taking a series of photos of various members of his family with Harry.  They certainly let him know who they thought was the star.

I hate leaving the ground after the last match of the season, so left very late and saw José and Diana Holebas walking towards me.  He looked devastated and I could only say thank you to him for all that he has done for us this season.

 

Knitted Deulofeu

Back to the West Herts for our final post-match drinks of the season.  Mike was there, proudly showing off his Supporter of the Season trophy.  But, apart from celebrating Mike’s success, the mood was somewhat sombre.  We had only needed a point to achieve a top half finish and I was gutted that we hadn’t managed to do that.  However, I took a deep breath and remembered that my hope at the start of the season was just that we would finish higher than we had in the seasons since our return to the top division.  My optimistic prediction had been 12th and we had surpassed that.  Watford haven’t had a top half finish in the top division since the first GT era, so this was something to celebrate.  When you add to that the fact that we are in an FA Cup Final for only the second time in our history, this will go down as one of the best seasons that we have ever experienced.  So, despite the disappointing end, the memories of this season will be mostly joyous.

However, the thing that was really upsetting me was the sending off of José Holebas.  I still have not got over the injustice done to Wilf Rostron in 1984.  My sister took a banner to the final declaring “Wilf is Innocent”.  I have never forgiven either Roger Milford or Paul Elliott for their parts in him missing the cup final.  The thought that Jose Holebas, who has become a bit of a cult figure for his Eeyore-like demeanour but has also been one of our best players this season, was going to miss the final broke my heart.  I have to say that it was a good thing that I chose to work from home today as, when the news came through that the red card had been overturned, I sobbed uncontrollably.  Suddenly there is a good omen for next Saturday.  Jose is innocent and the Hornets have the opportunity to choose from their best players for the final.  Our chances are slim, but in a cup game you never know.  As long as we all take our best game to Wembley, we have a chance. Oh, there go those nerves again.

A Frustrating Sunday Afternoon at the Bridge

Foster about to take a free kick

This is one of the easiest of away trips for me and, for once, the bizarre weekend schedules of South Western Railway did not cause me any problems.  They had even cleared the tree that had meant a trip from Clapham Junction to Windsor on Saturday evening required a detour via Paddington.  So, after a pleasant train journey to Putney and a walk through some dodgy looking areas of Fulham, I found myself in Parsons Green to meet friends for Sunday lunch.  Lots of talk of what we had been up to since we last met.  Mike and I had seen Maggie Smith in “A German Life”, which was superb.  Graham had been to the Don McCullin exhibition and was still a bit shell shocked from it.  I had missed City Orns to see The Unthanks, so was updated on the gathering that I had missed while enjoying an evening of Northumbrian folk music.  Our peace was briefly shattered when the Norfolk/East Anglian Horns turned up to say “Hello”.  Glenn told us that, as it was the last away game of the season, he had started his trip with champagne and strawberries.  Our friends from Norfolk know how to travel in style.  A Chelsea fan appeared and wished us luck in the Cup Final.  The Sunday roasts were absolutely delicious, and we were enjoying our lunch so much that we almost forgot that there was a match to go to.  Almost …

The welcome return of Deeney

We left plenty of time for our walk to Stamford Bridge and to negotiate our way past the multiple phalanxes of security guards.  There was a surprise in store as we were greeted by a voice announcing, “FA Cup Finalists to the left.”  I was still smiling when I heard another directing us on “The road to Wembley.”  A rather lovely and unexpected welcome which meant that my opinion of Chelsea went up massively.

Team news was that Gracia had made two changes with the welcome return of Deeney in place of Gray and a rare start for Chalobah deputising for the injured Capoue.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Mariappa, Cathcart, Femenía; Pereyra, Chalobah, Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Deeney.  The choice of Chalobah over Cleverley, who was on the bench, was an interesting one.  Our hope was that Nate’s return to Chelsea would give him an extra incentive to impress.  It was pleasing to see that he was given a warm welcome back by the Chelsea fans.

As we took our seats, Alice produced her flag.  Designed by the 1881, in an homage to our previous cup final, it bore the legend “Hot cross Barnes Holebas.”  Just wonderful.

Mariappa on the ball

The game kicked off and there was a great early chance for the Hornets as Deulofeu turned and hit a shot that was just wide of the target.  Watford should have taken the lead on 8 minutes when, from a short corner, Holebas crossed for Deeney whose header was heading for the top corner until Kepa somehow got a hand to it and kept it out, the ball dropped to Hughes whose shot was well over the bar.  Sarri was forced into an early change as Kanté picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Loftus-Cheek.  Chelsea had their first shot in the 14th minute, a chip from Jorginho that was blocked by Foster.  The home side threatened again as Higuaín broke into the box but was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Mariappa.  Watford created another decent chance as Hughes laid the ball off to Deulofeu, but the shot was wide of the target.  The next chance for the Hornets came as a lovely passing move finished with Holebas shooting over the bar.  Chelsea had a half chance as the ball was dinked to Hazard in the box, Foster appeared to hesitate, but recovered and was able to gather the ball.  Then Pereyra and Deeney combined to get the ball to Doucouré in shooting position, but his shot flew wide of the target.  There was a shout for a penalty as Femenía tussled with Luiz in the box.  From our angle, it looked as though the Chelsea man was playing for the foul, the referee was equally unimpressed and waved play on.  Another chance for the home side came as Hazard took the ball off Doucouré before playing in Pedro, whose shot curled over the target.  There was some frustration in the away end as the ball was passed from Doucouré to Deeney to Pereyra, all of whom could have taken a shot, but none did, and the chance was gone.    At the other end, Pedro played a one-two with Higuaín before taking a shot that was just wide of the target.  Another opportunity went begging after some good work from Pereyra who slipped in the build-up, but recovered to put in a decent cross, sadly there was no Watford player on hand to take advantage.  The half time whistle went to boos from the Chelsea fans and cheers from the travelling Hornets who had seen their team completely dominate the half, playing some exquisite football, but failing to make the most of their chances.  When have we heard that before this season?

Great to see Chalobah back in the team

All our good work was undone in the first five minutes of the second half.  Hazard tried a shot from an acute angle that Foster pushed around the post for a corner.  From the corner Hazard crossed and Loftus-Cheek beat Chalobah to open the scoring.  Two minutes later, the home side were two up as, from another corner, Luiz came around the blind side of Mariappa and headed home.  It was the Manchester City away game all over again.  The Hornets tried to hit back as Deeney found Deulofeu just outside the box, he took his time to pick his shot before firing just wide of the far post.  Pereyra played a lovely through ball to Deulofeu whose shot was weak and easily dealt with by Kepa.  We then had the interesting sight of a fired-up Holebas (what other kind is there), tackling Pereyra before snapping into a set of challenges.  Even when we are losing, angry José can make me smile.  Chelsea had a decent chance to score a third as Hazard found Pedro in the box, thankfully the shot was saved by Foster and Loftus-Cheek put the follow-up wide.  The Hornets had a chance to pull one back as Mariappa crossed for Doucouré, who couldn’t get above the ball, so it came off the top of his head and flew over the bar.  At the other end, the home side had a great chance to increase their lead as a shot from Higuaín was kept out by a brilliant save from Foster.  Then Chalobah played a lovely ball for Deulofeu who hit a decent cross towards Deeney, but Alonso put the ball out for a corner.

Holebas and Pereyra prepare for a free kick

Gracia made his first substitution replacing Chalobah with Cleverley.  It had been an interesting choice before the game, but Nate had justified his selection putting in the best performance that I have seen from him since he came back from injury.  Watford had another chance to reduce the deficit when Deulofeu found Hughes in prime position, but the shot was appalling.  A number around us were berating him for passing instead of shooting.  It looked like a shot to me, but it was that poor that it was mistaken for a pass.  Any hopes the Hornets had of a comeback were dashed when Pedro played the ball to Higuaín, Foster came out to meet him, but the Argentine chipped the keeper and found the net.  But Watford were still fighting and Deeney should have done better when the ball fell to him, but he belted his shot over the bar.  There was a much better chance soon after when Holebas nicked the ball and rounded Luiz, but his shot rebounded agonisingly off the crossbar.  Each side made late substitutions.  Giroud replaced Higuaín for the home side, while Deeney and Deulofeu made way for Gray and Success.  Troy looked furious when he saw the board go up indicating that his afternoon was over.  Watford finally had the ball in the net, and it was typical of our day.  A free kick from Pereyra appeared to have been cleared off the line by Holebas, Success got his head on it, but it bounced off Gray on the way in and was flagged offside due to Gray’s inadvertent touch.  Chelsea should have scored a fourth as Hazard crossed for Giroud who scuffed his shot and cleared the bar.

Pereyra takes a free kick

Watford had a half chance as Hughes crossed for Success, but the header was an easy catch for Kepa.  The last substitution for Chelsea saw Cahill come on for Luiz, he was handed the captain’s armband and got the biggest cheer of the afternoon.  Femenía went on a decent run, but his cross was turned around for a corner.  The first card of the game came in time added on as Doucouré was cautioned for a pull on Hazard.  Foster was in action twice in added time, first to divert a shot from Hazard into the side netting, then to gather a low shot from Giroud.  The last chance of the game fell to the Hornets, but the shot from Success was poor and easily saved by Kepa.

We headed back to Parsons Green to drown our sorrows.  As we arrived at the pub, we saw the Chelsea fan who had wished us luck at Wembley before the game.  His verdict, “We robbed you.”  He wasn’t wrong.  The scoreline indicated that we had been well beaten, the pattern of the game nothing of the kind.  But this has been the case in a number of our games against the top six this season.  Similar to the matches against Arsenal and Manchester United, we dominated large parts of the game, but could not turn that domination into goals and were let down by defensive mistakes.  In the first half in particular, the passing was incredibly slick, and we played some gorgeous football but our finishing let us down.  It was great to see Troy back.  He looked hungry and desperate to make up for lost time and we saw the leadership that we had been missing.  As frustrating as the afternoon had been, the conversation soon took a positive turn as we reflected how far this team has come.  In contrast to when we were first promoted, I now travel to most games feeling that we have a team good enough to get something from the game.  It is very rare that we leave a ground with that humiliating feeling of having been taught a lesson by a much better team.  That is something to be relished and when we look back on this season, it will be with pride and happiness and a sense that we have progressed.

 

The Battle for Seventh Place

Gathering for a corner

It has been a very stressful week.  Work has been full on, with a number of important deadlines meaning that I was working long hours.  But this game had taken on enormous importance, as it would surely be key in our fight with Wolves for seventh place, so it was never far from my thoughts.  The importance was brought home when I woke with a jolt at 5am on Saturday, knowing that I had to be somewhere and stressing about how I would get there.  When I was awake enough to realise that kick-off was at 3pm, so I had plenty of time, I calmed down a bit.

For once, I timed my journey perfectly.  After having a quick chat with Mick, our Police liaison officer, at the Junction (he was confident of a win, I wasn’t), I arrived at the West Herts just after it opened.  Our party was a little depleted due to commitments elsewhere, but there was still a good turnout at ‘our’ table.  Glenn appeared with his sweets as usual but, as it was a Saturday, there was the extra treat of the delicious pork scratchings that he gets from his butcher which I had as dessert after a portion of jerk chicken.  I left for the ground a little earlier than usual to pick up my tickets for the FA Cup Final.  It was so good to have them in my hands at last.

Doucoure on the ball

Team news was three changes from Tuesday with Gracia again alternating his defensive options with Femenía and Mariappa in for Janmaat and Kabasele, we also had the welcome return of Holebas taking the place of Masina.  Adam was terrific in the game against Southampton, but Jose would always be in my first XI.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Mariappa, Cathcart, Femenía; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucoure, Hughes; Deulofeu, Gray.  I must say that I felt very reassured by the team selection.

The teams ran out to “I’m Still Standing” and I was left cold again.  It is not growing on me, but at least you can hear it, unlike the Superman theme.

The game kicked off and some of our fans decided that this was a good time to goad Wolves after our cup semi-final win.  I always think that pride comes before a fall, so the chants worried me greatly.  There was a cagey start to the game, the first chance for either side came on 12 minutes when Deulofeu won a corner.  The delivery from Holebas was deep and headed back by Capoue to Doucouré whose shot was blocked, the ball fell to Pereyra whose shot was also blocked.  I must admit that, with the early disasters in the previous two home games, I was very happy when we got to 15 minutes on the clock without a catastrophic event.

Geri looking baffled at Jose’s secret instructions

The first shot on target didn’t come until the 21st minute when Neves tried a shot from distance, Foster was equal to it.  The Hornets had a great chance to take the lead when Pereyra played a lovely ball to Deulofeu, but Geri slipped as he was about to take the shot and the chance was gone.  Hughes did brilliantly to control a dropping ball, he found Deulofeu, but the shot was turned around a post for a corner, which Deulofeu played short to Holebas whose shot was terrible and flew well wide of the target.  From my position in the Rookery, I thought that Wolves had taken the lead when a shot from Jiménez was cleared off the line by Capoue.  I can’t have been the only one holding my breath waiting for the referee to indicate that the ball had actually crossed the line before it was cleared, but that indication didn’t come, and the game remained goalless.  A lovely forward passing move involving Pereyra and Hughes finished with the ball with Deulofeu whose shot was blocked.  Watford should have opened the scoring from the resultant corner which Holebas delivered deep to Pereyra, he crossed for Mariappa who headed back to Hughes, who had the goal at his mercy, but directed his header over the target.  The opening goal came late in the half.  From our vantage point, it appeared that the ball had gone out for a throw-in.  The linesman on that side, must have seen the ball rolling past him, but felt the need to consult with the referee before giving a corner.  The Hornets failed to clear from the corner allowing Jota to cross for Jiménez to head home and then celebrate by showing us the name on the back of his shirt, while our hearts sank.  In retrospect I wonder if he lost the mask at Wembley.  Watford should have hit back almost immediately as Hughes found Gray in the box, but he shot over the bar when it looked easier to score.  In mitigation, Andre claimed that he had been fouled, but the referee was having none of it.  Just on half time, Deulofeu played a neat one-two with Pereyra, but his shot was blocked.

Celebrating Gray’s equaliser

So we went into the break a goal down after a very even half of football that had been short on chances.  In contrast to Tuesday, the half time entertainment was restricted to the schools’ penalty shoot-out.  This was much more like it.

The second half started brilliantly for the Hornets as a mistake in the Wolves defence allowed the ball to break to Deulofeu, he tried to beat Patricio but the ball broke to Gray who found the net and sent the Watford fans wild.  After we had finished celebrating, we then had the entertainment of watching other fans coming back after getting their half time refreshments.  Their faces were a picture.  Wolves had a half chance to regain the lead as Doherty crossed for Jota but the shot was well over the target.  Deulofeu then played a lovely ball to Gray, but Boly muscled him off the ball and came away with it.  Pereyra released Deulofeu who tried to chip the keeper, but Patricio made the catch.  The first booking of the game went to Moutinho for barging Hughes over.  Not wanting to be left out, Holebas then fouled Jota to get a yellow card of his own.  Watford had a decent chance to take the lead as Doucouré headed the ball down to Pereyra, but the shot was wide of the near post.

Perayra prepares to take a corner

There were shouts for a penalty as a shot from Hughes appeared to be handled, but the referee wasn’t interested.  That was Will’s last involvement in the game as he was replaced with Kabasele.  Hughes had been terrific, absolutely everywhere, and deserved the ovation that he was given when he left the pitch.  But the change in formation did not favour the Hornets and the next chance fell to Moutinho who tried a shot from distance that was deflected over the bar.  The winning goal for the visitors seemed to come out of nothing.  A long cross-field ball from Neves found Jota who finished past Foster.  From the other end of the ground, it just looked unfortunate, but reports from those at the Vicarage Road end indicated that Foster should have done better with the cross.  Others blamed Storm Hannah.  Gracia was forced into a substitution bringing Success (!) on for Cathcart who had been limping for a while.  I love Javi, but his substitutions on Saturday were interesting to say the least.  Jota was booked for time wasting after kicking the ball away when Watford were awarded a free kick.  It was amusing to see him trying to claim that he had been passing the ball back to Foster.  The visitors made a late substitution bringing Cavaleiro on for Jiménez, who ambled off the pitch.  There were shouts for a penalty from the Wolves fans as Kabasele brought Jota down in the box.  It looked like a superb tackle from where we were and the referee agreed.  There was a late booking for Capoue who then got involved in a spot of handbags.  Nuno brought Gibbs-White on for Jota to waste a little more time. The final whistle went soon after, ensuring that Wolves left Hertfordshire with the three points and in pole position to finish in seventh place.

Capoue leaving Mapps to do the work at a corner 😉

Unlike on Tuesday, it was hard to be angry at the end of this game.  The word that I heard repeatedly was “disappointing”.  It had been a very even contest between two well matched teams and the best team on the day won the game.  Again, we missed Deeney’s leadership.  That harsh sending off has probably prevented us finishing as the best of the rest.  However, we can only hope that the rest has done him good and he comes back to spearhead a barnstorming end to the season that finishes with him lifting the FA Cup.

After the game, my sister, Rose, insisted on going into the Hornet shop, having seen our Cate’s purchase of the cup final shirt placing GT in 1984 alongside Javi in 2019.  We both emerged with the same t-shirt, probably the first time the three of us will have an identical item of clothing since our lovely Mum used to make our dresses in the 70s.

I know that the most important game is the next one, but now that seventh place looks impossible, all focus is on the Cup Final, which has to be the better way to qualify for Europe.  Oh dear, there go those nerves again.

 

A Game Book-ended by Goals

Pereyra on the attack

Tuesday night was the next instalment in the fight for seventh place and the opportunity for Watford fans to go on a European tour for the first time since 1983.  This was a crucial game and my pre-match nerves were certainly out in force.  I arrived at the West Herts in time for a couple of calming pre-match pints and, while there was no jerk chicken on offer, they did have a rather lovely curry instead, which set me up for the game rather nicely.

Team news was that Gracia had made three changes from Saturday with Janmaat, Kabasele and Pereyra in for Femenía, Mariappa and Sema.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Kabasele, Cathcart, Janmaat; Pereyra, Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Gray.

Glenn, our West Herts sweetie man, had sent me with a bag of sweets for Don so, having had to take a detour to the lower GT to drop them off, the players were already on the pitch by the time I reached my seat.  Having finished my pre-match ritual of putting on my replica shirt and retrieving my notebook, pen and camera from my bag, I noticed a big white envelope by my seat.  I opened it to find a sheet with the words of “Rocket Man”, as if I don’t already know them.  Irritation at this distraction was compounded when I looked up to see Shane Long bearing down on goal and shooting past Foster.  Only 7 seconds of the game had elapsed.  I had missed Cathcart hitting a pass at Long to lead to this chance.  I was devastated and, again, I blamed the decision to dispense with Z-cars.  You don’t mess with something so important at such a crucial point in the season.

Andre Gray

The Hornets tried to hit back immediately as Hughes crossed for Gray, his first shot was blocked, his headed follow-up flew over the bar.  Deulofeu then had a decent chance after a one-two with Doucouré, but he curled his shot just wide.  Southampton then had a chance to increase their lead as a cross from Ward-Prowse was headed just wide of the near post by Long.   The first booking of the game went to Romeu for a foul on Capoue.  The normally reliable Cathcart was in trouble again, as Redmond beat him before hitting a shot that Foster touched around the far post.  Tables were then turned as Capoue was booked for a foul on Romeu, the resultant free-kick was straight at Foster.  Bertrand then dived on the edge of the box, thankfully the referee treated the theatrics with the contempt that they deserved, the ball was played out to Redmond whose cross was headed over by Long.  The next chance for the Hornets fell to Pereyra whose shot through a sea of legs was easily dealt with by Gunn in the Southampton goal.  There was danger for the Hornets as Kabasele slipped when trying to deal with a cross from Long, it ran through to Bertrand whose shot was turned onto the outside of the post.   From the corner, the ball fell to Stephens in front of goal, Foster did well to smother his effort.  The next booking went to Doucouré, who took one for the team, earning a yellow card after stopping a break by Armstrong.  Southampton continued to threaten the Watford goal as Redmond crossed for Bertrand who saw another shot rebound off the outside of the post.  Watford had a great chance to grab an undeserved equaliser just before half time as Deulofeu received a ball from Doucouré but his shot was just wide of the far post.  Bednarek was the next to go into the referee’s book after a foul on Capoue.  Just before the whistle went for half time, Deeney walked along the front of the Rookery, presumably to go to the dressing room and give the players a rocket.

Masina and Kabasele

I was furious at half time, so in no mood for a sing-along.  Now, I will start by saying that I love Elton.  I first saw him in concert in 1984, playing at Wembley a month after we had both been there for the Cup Final.  Over the years, I have seen him live on numerous occasions and even spent a ridiculous amount of money to buy a shirt that he had signed in an auction.  However, all efforts on this evening should have been concentrated on getting three points against Southampton.  This promotional effort for Paramount Pictures was totally inappropriate and, combined with the replacement of Z-cars, made me vow not to see the film.  It is probably just as well that I had missed the flag that was draped over the Rookery before the game.  Shifting the focus of the evening from a fight for seventh place to a promotional push for a film, even one about our beloved Elton, was not sitting well with me.  John Barnes was on the pitch leading the singing and when he started the “World in Motion” rap, I decided it was time to go to the loo.

Gracia made a substitution at the break replacing Cathcart with Femenía.  You had to feel sorry for Craig.  His mistake for the goal was terrible and he had looked shaky for the rest of the game, which had been really hard to watch as he is normally so reliable and unflappable.

Capoue watching the flight of the ball

My mood worsened further when Deulofeu went down in the box, an injury to him would have felt like the final straw.  Thankfully, he was able to continue.  Geri created the first chance of the second half crossing for Doucouré to head goalwards, but Gunn was able to make the catch.  Deulofeu was then penalised for a push on Stephens and earned a booking for screaming at the linesman.  He was as frustrated as I was, but he is a liability when he gets into this sort of mood and I was afraid that he was heading for a red card.  A Southampton attack was stopped by a great interception from Masina, who was having a terrific game.  Then a good passing move from the Hornets finished with a shot from Janmaat that was blocked for a corner.  There was a shout for a penalty as Kabasele was pulled over in the box as he attempted to reach a cross from Pereyra, but the referee waved appeals away.  From a short corner, a cross from Deulofeu was headed clear by Yoshida.  The visitors made their first substitution bringing Sims on for Armstrong, this was soon followed by Romeu making way for Lemina.  A challenge from Kabasele on Long resulted in the Southampton man falling in the box, but the offence was adjudged to have taken place outside.  Before the free kick was taken, each side made a change with Success coming on for Hughes for the Hornets and Valery replacing Long, who had been injured in the challenge, for the visitors.  When the free kick was finally taken, it was a good effort from Ward-Prowse that was heading for the bottom corner until Foster dived to make the save.  The next card went to Masina who was cautioned after pulling Sims back to stop him escaping.

The goal celebration was brief

The Hornets were pushing for an equaliser in the last minutes of the game as Gray found Deulofeu whose return pass was intercepted by Yoshida and cleared.  Deulofeu created another chance, this time for Pereyra who had a shot from the centre of the area that was blocked.  But the Hornets finally grabbed an equaliser when the ball fell for Gray to lash past Gunn and send the Watford fans into wild celebration.  In contrast, there was little celebration from the players who knew it was too little too late.

The final whistle went to a mixture of relief and disappointment.  The players were warmly applauded by the fans and it was good to see Cathcart come back onto the pitch to join in.

I went back to the West Herts in an absolutely foul mood that was only slightly helped by a large quantity of red wine.  It had been a difficult game.  Conceding so early allowed Southampton to play a defensive game aiming to catch Watford on the break, which they did on more than one occasion.  Watford had most of the possession and had more shots on goal, but didn’t test Gunn enough and the draw was probably fair.  There were decent passages of play from the Hornets, but they didn’t appear to be playing as a team and we were desperately missing Troy’s leadership.  Still, prior to Wolves playing Arsenal the following day, this moved us back into seventh place with the focus now shifting to Saturday and the need to beat Wolves for the third time this season.  That thought set the nerves off again, but our fate was in our own hands, which is all you can ask for.

 

Winning in the Yorkshire Sunshine

Pat Jennings, Adam Leventhal, Gerry Armstrong, John McClelland and Pat Rice on the Palace Theatre Stage

Thursday evening was another Tales from the Vicarage event.  Coming hot on the heels of the last one, as well as being on Maundy Thursday meant that the tickets were slow in selling.  I have to say that did me a favour as it meant that when I logged on as soon as they went on sale, I was able to bag front row seats.  The line-up was Pat Jennings, Pat Rice, Gerry Armstrong and John McClelland.  I am too young to have seen Pat Jennings in a Watford shirt, but he was a player that I admired.  The other three were all favourites but I have a particularly soft spot for McClelland, an intelligent defender who was blessed with deceptive pace that meant he was rarely beaten.  I have been to all of these evenings and this was certainly one of the best.  Four intelligent, articulate men with interesting stories to tell.  They spoke with great affection of their time at Watford and, for the guys who played in the 80s, their interactions with GT.  Even though Jennings was such a small part of our history, his contributions were fascinating.  He was so softly spoken, but had such stories to tell.  The boy who left Ireland for the first time to play in a tournament including facing a formidable England team at Wembley.  At 17 years old, he moved to Watford and was so grateful to Bill McGarry who made sure that he could go home regularly.  This is something that Pat has ensured happens for a new generation of youngsters who are far away from home.  He also roomed with George Best for years when playing for Northern Ireland, which probably gives him a whole evening of stories, which was encapsulated in “it gave a whole new meaning to room service”.  At the end of the evening, we were slow leaving the auditorium and the lads reappeared on the stage for their group photo.  Pat Jennings smiled at us and asked if we had enjoyed the evening and I came over all star-struck at the fact that Pat Jennings had spoken to me.  Then Johnny Mac appeared and was asked if we could have a photo with his biggest fan.  He came down off the stage for a cuddle and a photo and I am still ever so slightly weak at the knees.

Ben Foster

I was hoping that the evening had been recorded, so that I could relive it.  In answer to my prayers, the “From the Rookery End” podcast appeared on Friday evening which was an hour of the lads telling their stories.  I listened to this on the train up to Huddersfield and it was so good that, when it finished, I immediately listened to it again.  When I got to Huddersfield, I told everyone that I met to do the same.  The link is below.  You won’t regret it.

http://fromtherookeryend.com/2019/04/21/tftv-northern-ireland-9-48/

When I arrived, Huddersfield was bathed in gorgeous sunshine and I was in the pub very early doors so nabbed a table, only to find out that there had been an advance party who were sitting in the garden enjoying the lovely weather with the East Anglian and Norfolk Hornets.  As it was Toddy’s birthday, it was especially lovely to see his friends out in force and Jerry Ladell proposed a toast that was echoed by all Toddy’s friends in the garden.  We were also joined by Rich Walker, Watford FC’s Communications Director, who put money behind the bar for the Hornets fans to have a drink, which was a lovely thing to do.

Andre Gray on the ball

At the appointed time, we wandered to the ground, where there was much less of a queue for security than there had been last year, so we were soon inside where we met up with Becky and Lynn.  Becky had arrived early to find somewhere to display her flag, and was rather surprised to find that there would be no spare seats over which to drape the flag.  Like me, she had thought that the away crowd would be small on Easter Saturday.  In the event, she was able to hang the flag in front of the wheelchair enclosure, once Don had confirmed that it wouldn’t obstruct his view.

Team news was three changes from Monday with Mariappa, Sema and Deulofeu in for Janmaat, Kabasele and Deeney who failed to win his appeal against the red card.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Mariappa, Masina; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Sema; Deulofeu, Gray.  Lovely Jonathan Hogg started for Huddersfield.

After the teams came out, I was pleased to note that as Ben Foster appeared in the goal in front of the travelling Hornets, his name was sung with gusto, so there were no hard feelings after his mistake on Monday.

Returning from celebrating the first goal

The Huddersfield stadium is really gorgeous.  Unlike most of the new soulless bowls, it is just lovely with open concourses and seats near to the action while the ground, even though it is only a short walk from the town is surrounded by trees.  After admiring my surroundings, it was time to concentrate on the match and hopefully winning a crucial three points.

The game started brilliantly for the Hornets as Hogg lost the ball in midfield, Doucouré advanced and was tackled, but the ball fell to Deulofeu who dwelled on it, picking his spot and, in a very similar manner to his first at Wembley, guided it in with a low shot that went in off the post.  It was a great way to settle the nerves.  Watford threatened again as an attack by Gray was stopped with a tackle, the ball broke to Doucouré who found Sema in space, but the shot was straight at Lössl in the Huddersfield goal.  Then Deulofeu played a one-two with Hughes, but the shot was blocked.  The first chance of the game for the home side came following a sloppy pass from Femenía that was picked up by Bacuna, but his shot was well over the target.  The first caution of the game went to Capoue for a foul on Bacuna on the edge of the area.  Mooy stepped up to take the free kick but hit it wide of the near post.  Huddersfield threatened again as a great ball released Durm whose cross was cut out by a timely interception from Mariappa.  Hogg was then booked for a foul on Deulofeu.  It should have been two for the Hornets as Gray played a cross field ball to Sema who advanced and crossed back for Andre, but the shot was well over the target.  Huddersfield had their best chance of the game so far as Smith cut the ball back to Mbenza on the edge of the box, he unleashed a powerful shot that Foster did very well to get behind and push to safety.  Deulofeu was causing all sorts of problems for the home side and Bacuna was the next to be booked for fouling him.  The free kick was from a dangerous position, but Lössl was able to punch it to safety.

Captain Mariappa directing proceedings

Huddersfield threatened again as a cross from Smith reached Kachunga, but a great block from Mariappa averted the danger.  The last action of the half was an early substitution for Huddersfield as Hogg made way for Daly.  So we reached half time a goal to the good, but I couldn’t help feeling that we really needed another goal as Huddersfield were creating chances of their own.

The first action of note in the second half came as Gray was penalised for a very soft foul on Kongolo.  He was clearly furious so, when the Huddersfield man got back to his feet, he pushed him over.  Now that’s a foul!  There was a great chance for the Hornets to increase their lead as Deulofeu nipped into the box and tried a shot that was just off target, Gray stretched but couldn’t apply the crucial touch that would have turned it in to the net.  Another great chance for the home side came from a corner, the initial shot was blocked, the follow up was an acrobatic kick from Mounié that cleared the target.  At this stage it has to be said that, despite already being relegated, the Huddersfield fans were making a great noise in support of their team.

Celebrating Deulofeu’s second goal

Another shot from Deulofeu was claimed by a low save from Lössl, but Gray challenged and his attempts to turn it into the goal as the Huddersfield keeper scrambled to keep hold of the ball did not go down well with Schindler, the Terriers’ captain.  But no action was taken beyond the award of a free kick.  Another chance came for the Hornets when Sema played the ball back to Deulofeu who tried a curling shot from distance that was an easy catch for Lössl.  Huddersfield threatened as Smith played a ball across the face of the goal where it went begging, but eventually reached Mooy whose shot was straight at Foster.  Each side made a substitution with Grant replacing Mounié for the home side and Gray making way for Success for the visitors.  Sadly, despite working hard, it really hadn’t been Andre’s day.  Deulofeu had another chance to increase Watford’s lead as a free kick from Foster reached him just outside the area, but his shot was over the target.  The second goal came with 10 minutes to go as Sema went on a run on the left wing, cut the ball back to Doucouré, whose shot was blocked, but the ball fell to Deulofeu who didn’t bother with anything fancy this time, he just buried it.  That was his work done as, a couple of minutes later he was replaced by Chalobah.  There was a feeling in our party that it is a bit mean to replace a player who is on a hat trick and Geri never likes being substituted, so it was nice to see him come out of the dug out to acknowledge the chants of his name from the away end.  Just before this change, the home side had also made a substitution replacing Mbenza with Lowe.

Capoue discusses a free kick with Sema and Chalobah

There was a half shout for a penalty for the Hornets as Capoue appeared to be fouled just inside the box but he had a looked off-balance just before going down, so I wasn’t too surprised when the appeal was waved away.  The visitors were still trying to increase their goal difference and won a free kick in a dangerous position that Capoue took and hit just over the target.  Doucouré was then through on goal, but the flag went up for offside, he went for the shot anyway and was booked for his trouble (and the ball rebounded off the post).  Gracia made his final substitution bringing Navarro on for Hughes.  Almost immediately the home side pulled a goal back from a header from Grant.  I looked at the clock and saw that it was showing 90 minutes.  I hadn’t seen the board go up with the added time, so was unaware that the goal had actually come two minutes into the three that had been added, so I was mightily relieved when the whistle went for full time.

 

Success taking on the Huddersfield defence

At the end of the game, a number of the players came over to give their shirts to fans.  Ben Foster was one of them.  He had hit a youngster with a ball in the warm up and was clearly concerned that he had hurt the child, so made a point of coming over the hoardings to give him his shirt.  A lovely gesture that was clearly much appreciated by the boy and his father.

We headed back to the pub for a swift drink before catching the train home.  It had been a frustrating game, we really should have had a more convincing win, but Deulofeu is a joy to watch at the moment.  Capoue is also putting in great performances that must make him one of the favourites for Player of the Season.  In previous seasons, he has been a player with a great deal of talent that wasn’t always on show.  Gracia has got the best out of him and it has been a pleasure to witness.  While it wasn’t the best team performance of the season, it saw Watford back in seventh position in the table (at least until Everton’s win on Sunday) and with their position at the end of the season in their own hands.  We have three home games remaining, which are all must wins.

I will really miss going to Huddersfield.  It is a lovely ground and the pre-match pub is excellent, with good beer, good food and plenty of friendly, efficient bar staff.  I hope that they return to the Premier League very soon.

 

Tremendous with Ten Men

Remembering the 96

When a match falls on 15th April, you can’t help but think of the events at Hillsborough 30 years ago.  On that day, I was standing on the terrace at the County Ground, Swindon.  Don was propped up on a crush barrier next to me and a police officer told us that a wall had fallen down at the cup semi-final between Liverpool and Forest. On the coach on the way home we listened to the horror unfolding on the radio.  I still find it hard to believe that 96 fans just like me went to a game that day and didn’t come home. What is even harder to take is that those lives were used for political grandstanding and their families have had to fight for justice for so long.  As Bill Kenwright said, “They picked on the wrong mums.”  I have always thought that what happened to them could have happened to any of us, so we all stand together in the fight for justice.

My departure from the office was a little later than I had planned so, when I arrived at the West Herts, the jerk chicken had run out and I had to make do with a burger.  Most disappointing.

 

Ben with Maddie and Amelia

Prior to the game, my sister had arranged for our nieces to recreate a photo they had taken with Ben Foster in 2007.  He was a good sport in doing it and the resulting montage was rather lovely.

Team news was four changes from the semi-final with Foster, Kabasele, Janmaat and Masina in for Gomes, Mariappa, Holebas and Pereyra.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Kabasele, Cathcart, Masina; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Femenía; Deeney, Gray.

As the players ran out, there was a shocking change as Z-cars was replaced by I’m Still Standing.  Now I love Elton and have seen him live on many occasions, but it just didn’t feel right.  All previous attempts to drop Z-cars have ended in tears, so I hope that the club rethink this terrible decision.

The game started very positively for the Hornets who created an early chance as Hughes received a cross from Femenía, but the shot was wide of the target.  Unfortunately, in the 10th minute, it seemed that an encounter with my family had quite put Ben off his game as he received a back pass and dwelt on the ball far too long giving Aubameyang time to nip in, tackle him and put the ball in the net.  It was an awful mistake.  To add insult to injury, a minute later the referee blew up for an unknown infringement.  He went to consult the linesman who indicated that he had seen an elbow.  The referee returned and showed Deeney a red card for an offence that nobody else appeared to have seen.  At that point I wished that I had gone to see Ian McEwan at the Southbank Centre, which had been my plan for the evening before the game was rearranged.

Cathcart. Capoue, Hughes and Doucoure

Arsenal had a chance to increase their lead as Iwobi broke down the wing and crossed for Aubameyang whose shot was deflected for a corner which came to nothing.  The Hornets should have equalised as Cathcart hit a volley that Leno tipped onto the post.  Watford created another great chance as Gray broke forward and tried to tee up Doucouré but Monreal put the ball out for a corner.  The delivery came back to Femenía whose shot was deflected by Mustafi and ended up on the roof of the net.  From the resulting corner, Kabasele took a shot but it was deflected wide of the target.  This time the corner was cleared and led to an Arsenal break that finished with a shot from Iwobi that was saved by Foster.  Hughes went on a tricky run and was tripped on the edge of the box.  Capoue took the free kick, a brilliant strike that was heading for the top corner, but Leno managed to get a hand to it to tip it wide.  Then a lovely move by the Hornets as Janmaat clipped a ball to Femenía who crossed for Kabasele, but the Watford man was penalised for a high boot.  The last action of the half was a low shot from Xhaka that was straight at Foster.

Christian Kabasele

When Ben appeared for the second half, he greeted the applause from the crowd by blowing a kiss and saying he was sorry.  Emery made a change at the start of the half replacing Troy’s “victim”, Torreira, with Özil.  The first chance of the second half fell to the visitors as Iwobi crossed for Aubameyang who touched the ball just wide.  Capoue then earned a booking for knocking Mkhitaryan over.  The visitors had a great chance to increase their lead as Aubameyang crossed for Mkhitaryan, but Foster pulled off an excellent save to keep the score down.  Just before the hour mark, there was a substitution for each side with the visitors bringing Guendouzi on for Mavropanos, while Femenía made way for Success for the Hornets.  An interesting change from Javi.  Watford should have drawn level as Masina hit a brilliant shot from distance, but it crashed back off the crossbar.  Then Janmaat played a lovely ball through to Gray, but his touch was poor and he could only direct his shot wide.  Emery made his final substitution replacing Ramsey with Maitland-Niles.  Watford threatened again as Janmaat crossed for Hughes, but the Arsenal defence were back to clear.  The visitors then looked to increase their lead as Aubameyang slid in to meet a cross that he turned wide with the flag up for offside.  Then Xhaka tried a shot from distance, but Foster was equal to it.  The Hornets created another great chance as Success headed the ball down to Gray, he rounded Leno but Maitland-Niles was back to block his shot.  Then Janmaat crossed for Hughes whose header was just over the bar.  Watford made a final substitution bringing Sema on for Masina.  But the last chance of the game fell to the visitors and was a terrible shot from Aubameyang that nearly hit us in the centre of the Rookery.

Masina whispering secret instructions to Janmaat

The final whistle went to loud cheers for the Hornets in appreciation of a tremendous performance with 10 men for 80 minutes.  Arsenal had been poor and, but for the intervention of the post and some terrific saves by Leno, Watford would have won the game.  The applause and chants for the Watford players at the end of the game continued until the last player left the pitch and were only interrupted in order to boo the officials.  It is odd to feel quite so positive after a defeat, but the reaction of all the fans that I spoke to was of pride in a committed and entertaining performance.  If only Troy had stayed on the pitch, it could have been very different.

I got back to my hotel in London quite late and, after seeing a link on Twitter, listened to Peter Jones summing up after the game at Hillsborough.  He finishes by mentioning the stewards gathering up the possessions of the victims, the red and white flags, scarves and rosettes of the Liverpool fans.  His last words are, “And the sun shines now.”  Just as heart breaking 30 years on as it was at the time.  The events of that day must never be forgotten.