Baptism of Fire for Ranieri

Ranieri in the Watford technical area

I hate 12:30 kick-offs, they are a complete disruption to the matchday routine.  My day started rather badly when the lens popped out of my distance glasses.  I did think that it was maybe a sign as not being able to see the game could be a boon but, on arrival in Watford, I decided to take a detour to Boots Opticians to get them fixed, which they did very quickly.  It was a very damp grey morning and Watford seemed surprisingly empty with little traffic on the ring road.  The speediness of service at Boots meant that I had time to get to the West Herts for a drink and a catch up.

There were large queues at the turnstiles, which seemed to be due to the stewards searching everyone.  It certainly wasn’t due to the digital tickets, as we were not given the chance to use them. 

I got into the stand and had a hug from my niece, Amelia.  I was dreading the game, but she told me to be positive.  “We beat them last time.”  Cate and Nigel were away, so their seats were taken by Fuzz and Kate, on her only visit from Qatar this season.  I wasn’t sure that this was the best choice of game for that.

With the departure of Xisco, who left in the loveliest way possible, we welcomed Claudio Ranieri as our new Head Coach.  This is an intriguing appointment.  I have always liked him, so hope he does well, but today was going to be a difficult debut.

Troost-Ekong and Sissoko

Team news was that there were 3 changes from the Leeds game, with the injured Sierralta and King, replaced by Cathcart and Hernández, and Tufan dropped to the bench and replaced by Masina.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Troost-Ekong, Rose; Sissoko, Kucka, Masina, Sarr; Hernández, Dennis.

The game kicked off and it was one way traffic, with Liverpool camped in the Watford half.  The visitors took the lead in the 8th minute after Salah went on a run down the right wing and played a gorgeous ball to Mané, who had an easy finish.  This was going to be a long afternoon.  It could have been two before a quarter of an hour had passed when a corner reached Salah on the edge of the box, thankfully Foster leapt and got a hand to the shot to keep it out.  A guy a couple of rows in front was getting really irate, berating the players, which seemed rather pointless as Liverpool were just much better than us.  Although he did have cause for complaint when Salah ran into the box, Masina having let him go thinking that he was offside, thankfully Foster was off his line and swept the ball away.  It was halfway through the first half before the Hornets finally made some headway.  Sarr played a through ball to release Hernández, but he delayed his shot allowing Alexander-Arnold back to make the block.  The second Liverpool goal came on 36 minutes, a quick break finished with a low cross from Milner that was turned home by Firmino.    The visitors could have had a third before half time when a shot from Keita was deflected but it hit the bar and flew over.

Danny Rose on the ball

So, we reached half time two goals down after being thoroughly outplayed.  During the break, there was a brief appearance by Heiđar Helguson, who is the latest Watford ambassador.  I was expecting an interview, but he just waved to the crowd as we sung his name.

Ranieri made his first substitution at the break bringing Cleverley on in place of Masina.  Watford kicked off the second half and immediately conceded possession, allowing Alexander-Arnold to have a shot from the edge of the box.  The next Liverpool chance came from Salah who took a shot from a standing position, but Foster pulled off a good save to deny him.  Liverpool’s third came 7 minutes into the second half.  Cathcart tried to block a pass from Robertson but ended up turning the ball goalwards, Foster blocked the ‘shot’, but it fell to Firmino to score his second.  The fourth came a couple of minutes later and was a superb piece of skill from Salah.  Even from the other end of the ground his quick feet were mesmerising as he juggled the ball around the defenders before finding the net.  Quite breathtaking.  Watford made a second substitution as Ngakia came on for Femenía.  With 55 minutes on the clock, the Hornets finally had a shot with a Kucka effort from distance that was straight at Kelleher in the Liverpool goal. 

Gathering for a corner

There was another Watford attempt soon after as Dennis played the ball out to Hernández who curled a hopeful shot high and wide of the far post.  At the other end, a clearance from Ngakia reached Mané whose shot (thankfully) cleared the bar.  Klopp made his first substitutions on 64 minutes as Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were replaced by Tsimikas and Oxlade-Chamberlain.  Watford threatened from a free kick when the ball fell to Hernández, whose shot was blocked, the rebound reached Cathcart, who was closed down, but the flag was up anyway.  Liverpool continued to threaten the Watford goal through Keita whose shot from the edge of the box flew just over the bar.  Ranieri made his final substitution on 69 minutes bringing João Pedro on for Dennis.  The visitors should have had a fifth after a mistake from Rose gifted the ball to Firmino, he crossed for Mané who shot wide of the far post.  Watford’s best chance of the game came as Sissoko beat a couple of challenges before feeding Hernández whose shot curled wide of the far corner.  Another chance for the Hornets came as a Cleverley corner was cleared to Sarr whose shot was mishit and cleared the bar.  At the other end, Mané met a cross from Milner, but his header was easily dealt with by Foster.  A promising move by the Hornets came to nothing as Ngakia played João Pedro in, he tried to chip the keeper, but the ball flew over the bar and he would have been ruled offside anyway.  The visitors made their final substitution bringing Williams on for Milner.  With 5 minutes to go, there was a decent chance for the Hornets as João Pedro pulled the ball back to Sarr whose shot tested Kelleher, but the Liverpool keeper got a hand to it and kept his clean sheet.  Ngakia then played a ball into the Liverpool box for Sarr whose shot was blocked, the ball was bouncing around but didn’t fall kindly for anyone in a yellow shirt.  I was baffled when it was announced that there would be only one minute of time added on.  But it was probably a kindness.  I didn’t see the fifth goal (and Firmino’s hat-trick) as the guys in front of us were leaving and blocking our view.  It was probably as well.  That ended up being the last kick of the game.

Troost-Ekong on the ball

There were no boos at the end, just sympathetic applause for the players.  They had been comprehensively outplayed and just looked dejected at the end.  I felt sorry for them.  Liverpool had been absolutely superb, their movement and passing was just brilliant and the goals (apart from the third) were excellent.  While Firmino took home the match ball, it was Salah who took the plaudits for that amazing fourth goal.  You cannot defend against a player with that much skill.  I have to say that, despite the thrashing, it was a much better performance than at Leeds.  At least we looked to be having a go in the second half, although Liverpool were resting having had the game sewn up by then.  It was a baptism of fire for Ranieri, who will need to pick the lads up for the trip to Everton next week.

We headed back to the West Herts and I cheered myself up with a portion of Drummy’s jerk chicken, rice and peas.  After a brief chat about the game, we started reminiscing about past games that have been a lot more fun.  The sun had come out and we were sitting outside with a drink and great company.  Fuzz observed that it is not just about the football.  She is so right.  After so long away during the COVID lockdowns, it was the time spent with friends that was missed the most.  Especially after a bad defeat, these are the moments that are treasured.

Xisco’s Last Stand

Lining up in the third kit

It was an early start for the trip to Leeds, but the move to London has meant that I have time for a coffee at home before leaving for the train and do not have to leave at the crack of dawn.  I was rather pleased with my single seat by the window and with the table service which delivered a bacon roll for breakfast.  I was in Leeds early doors and quickly found my way to our pre-match pub.  As I arrived, the doors were closed, but Graham was inside.  He waved me around to the doors next door.  It took me a couple of tries before I found the door marked “Mr Benn” which took me to the next stage of my adventure.  When I found him, it was still four minutes before the bar in that section opened, but I was soon sitting with a pint of Ossett Brewery’s Silver King, which was rather lovely.  The pub also served food from the πhole.  I had initially decided only to get the pie and peas, but reconsidered and added the mash and gravy.  The chicken and chorizo pie was very tasty, but the addition of creamy mash, minty mushy peas and gravy made it a perfect lunch for a wet afternoon in Leeds.  We had grabbed a table in our ‘usual’ area and were soon joined by the Happy Valley ‘Orns, who I haven’t seen since pre-COVID times.  There were beaming smiles and warm greetings, it was so lovely to see them again.

Gathering to meet a free kick

We left the pub at 2 to catch the shuttle bus to the ground and were very glad that we had, as there was a massive queue.  Even the locals were commenting that they had never seen such a long queue.  Leeds, like many clubs, have introduced a very strict bag policy (nothing larger than a sheet of A4).  I was a little concerned that my bag would violate their policy.  It was definitely small enough, but I was carrying a hardback copy of Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror and the Light” which is over 900 pages and quite weighty.  I contemplated leaving it at home, but my entertainment next Saturday afternoon, during the international break, is the RSC production of the play and, as I still had 270 pages to read, the long train journey seemed the perfect time to do it.  When I got to the turnstile, they took a cursory look in my bag, before tagging it as acceptable.  I paused, expecting to be searched, but the female steward paid me no further attention, and I was soon in the ground with bag intact.

Team news was that there were two changes from the Newcastle game with Sierralta back after his mysterious absence in place of Cathcart and Tufan in for Cleverley.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Rose, Sierralta, Troost-Ekong, Femenía; Sissoko, Tufan, Kucka; Dennis, King, Sarr.  I was irritated to see that we were playing in our third kit as I had only brought the red one with me.

Before kick-off there was a minute’s applause for Roger Hunt, who recently passed away.  It was impeccably and enthusiastically supported by all in the ground.

William Troost-Ekong

The first chance of the game came on 10 minutes when Troost-Ekong lost out to Dallas, who advanced and shot from the edge of the box, Foster got down to block and then cleared with his legs, while still on the ground, to prevent James from picking up the loose ball.  At this point the Leeds fans started singing about being European Champions.  On the way out, I looked at the honours that were displayed around the ground and could only see runners-up, but Wikipedia tells me that they won the Fairs Cup (precursor to the UEFA Cup) in 68 and 71!  The home side threatened again, Sarr went down complaining after Firpo dispossessed him, the home side broke upfield but Dallas shot well over the bar.  Leeds took the lead in the 19th minute.  The Watford defence were in disarray at a corner and Kucka headed the ball back for Llorente to fire past Foster.  The home side were appealing for a penalty soon after, when James went down in the box after a challenge from Troost-Ekong.  The referee waved play on prompting the Leeds fans to sing “Where the f*ck is VAR?”  Leeds created another chance when Dallas went on a run and played Klich in, he tried a shot from the edge of the area, but it flew straight into the arms of Foster.  A dangerous cross from James to Rodrigo was cut out by a great block from Sierralta, which prevented the Leeds man having a tap-in.  The Leeds keeper, Meslier, was finally called into action on 25 minutes when Tufan played the ball out to Sarr, but the shot was straight at the Leeds stopper.  Raphinha should have increased the lead for the hosts when he broke into the box and rounded Foster, but the Watford keeper had narrowed the angle so he could only find the side netting.  At the other end, Tufan picked up a loose ball in a dangerous position, but his shot was well over the bar.  The hosts should have increased their lead just before half time when the ball fell to Klich on the corner of the box, his effort flew just over the target.  Xisco was forced into a substitution at the end of the first half when King limped off and was replaced by Sema.  Watford had a half chance to draw level before half-time when Dennis found Sarr, who dribbled into the box, but his shot was terrible, flying high and wide of the target.  The half time whistle went to boos from the travelling Hornets.  I don’t boo, but I could totally understand why others did.  It had been a dreadful half of football.

Sissoko and Kucka

At the start of the second half, the home side created an early chance but a shot from Dallas was blocked by Troost-Ekong.  Klich won a free kick just outside the box, after a foul by Tufan, Raphinha stepped up, but his delivery flew over the bar.  James was the next to threaten for the home side after he went on a run, beating Femenía and Kucka, but Foster was down to gather his cross.  Then Klich found Dallas on the edge of the box, his shot was over the bar.  A break by James was stopped by a foul from Femenía, who was booked for his trouble.  Just before the hour mark, Xisco made his second substitution bringing João Pedro on for Tufan.  The home side had a great chance to increase their lead as Raphina curled a corner that looked to be heading under the bar before Foster got a hand to it.  Sarr was the next to be booked after a foul on James.  Shamefully, an invitation from the Leeds fans “Watford give us a song” was greeted with “We’re f*cking shit.”  I know we were appalling, but what happened to supporting your team?  I despair.  Poor communication between Foster and Sierralta led to the Chilean having to stretch to clear a ball and injuring himself.  After some treatment, he was replaced by Kabasele.  The Hornets created a rare chance as a ball into the box from Femenía was flicked on by Troost-Ekong to Dennis who was one-on -one with Meslier but the Leeds keeper blocked the shot, while taking a kick for his pains.  Rose went to take a corner in front of the Leeds fans, he engaged in conversation with the crowd and had a plastic bottle thrown at him.  The Hornets thought they had equalised from the corner which was dropped by Meslier and the ball bounced into the net, but the goal was disallowed as Kabasele had fouled one of the defenders.  To be fair, an equaliser would have been a travesty.  With 12 minutes remaining, Bielsa made his first substitution bringing Roberts on for Dallas.  Roberts was immediately in action when he broke forward and put in a cross that was blocked by Troost-Ekong.  The home side should have increased their lead when Foster dropped a free kick, Roberts picked up the ball, his shot was cleared off the line by Kucka and his follow-up rebounded back off the bar.  A real let-off for the Hornets.  In time added on, Sissoko found João Pedro whose shot from distance was blocked, so the Hornets fell to a 1-0 defeat, a scoreline that really flattered them.

Rose lining up a corner with ‘encouragement’ from the home fans

The Watford players came over to applaud the travelling Hornets.  I have to say that my applause back was perfunctory.  The Leeds players and fans were celebrating as if they had won the European Cup (again).  But those points were precious to them.  As we left the stand, we were serenaded with “It’s a long way back to London when you’re sh*t.”  They were not wrong.

We headed back to the shuttle buses and then back to the pub.  There was a music festival going on in the bar, so it was way too loud for my old ears, but the Happy Valleys had reclaimed our pre-match table, so at least we were comfortable for our post-match analysis.  We had been terrible.  Leeds are a poor side, but we had not tested them and were very lucky to have only lost by the single goal.  The midfield was appalling, both Sissoko and Kucka had dreadful games.  Sarr and Femenía, who make such a difference when they are on form, were lack lustre.  The only player who impressed at all, was Danny Rose.  When I received my ticket, I was annoyed that it was marked as a restricted view.  What that actually meant was that there was a pillar in my sightline but, sadly, I saw the whole game.  It wasn’t pretty.

Gathering for a corner

When I arrived to catch the train home, I spotted Miles Jacobson and Stuart Timperley, so I asked if they minded me joining them.  They kindly said that they didn’t, so I had delightful company on the way home and was able to thank Stuart, yet again, for saving our club on more than one occasion.

On arrival home, I reflected that, as bad as the game had been, I had had a cracking day out.  It has been so good to reconnect with friends that I haven’t seen for so long.  The company really makes the day and, despite the performance and the result, were all smiling at the end of the day.

It was no surprise to get the news on Sunday morning that Xisco had been sacked.  It is such a great shame, as he had brought smiles to our faces during lockdown, won us a promotion and was clearly a really lovely man.  But, apart from the first hour against Villa and some of the Norwich game, we have been dreadful this season and, with the tough run of games coming up, it was clear that a change was needed.  I wish Xisco much luck and happiness in the future.  It appears that his replacement will be Claudio Ranieri.  A very interesting appointment, I have a very soft spot for the Tinkerman.  But, given that Liverpool are our next opponents, I am quite glad to have a week off to regain my strength.  I will certainly need it over the next few weeks.

Diving Magpies, Shambolic Hornets and a Green Aussie

Cleverley ready to take a free kick

On the way to the game, my luck with the trains continued as, despite an annoying call just as I was about to leave the house, I was at Euston with several minutes to spare.  Although I did have to trot up to the concourse as the 11:49 wasn’t going from one of the usual platforms.  On arriving at the West Herts, I was pleased to see a good gathering and that we were joined by Mike B and a friend from Leeds.  I was delighted to see that Drummy was back on catering duties and the jerk chicken, rice and peas set me up beautifully for the game.

As there were queues at our usual turnstiles, we decided to try the ones at the far end of the Rookery which we were told were quieter.  Annoyingly they were equally busy.  The steward was letting people in using his master ticket, which irritated me, but he said that he had been told to do so.  Happily, he stepped aside and allowed me to use my digital ticket, which worked perfectly (always good to know).  One benefit of going in at that end of the Rookery is that I can buy my programme from Doreen Pym and be transported back to Bill Mainwood’s programme hut. 

Femenia takes a throw-in

This was actually the first league game this season when I sat in my season ticket seat, and it was lovely to see my long-term neighbours assemble.  From the greetings it was clear that this was also Trevor and Elaine’s first game back.  Theirs is a mixed marriage, Trevor is a QPR fan (I know), and was asking whether we would take Andre Gray back.  Not a chance!

There had been a lot of coverage before the game of the fact that Australian referee, Jarred Gillet, would be taking charge as the first overseas official in the Premier League.  I had seen some footage on YouTube of his last A-League game (before he left to work in the Championship).  He was mic-ed up and seemed very sensible, communicating his decisions clearly and was clearly well respected by the players that he officiated.  I hoped he would do equally well in our game.

Team news was that there were no changes from the Norwich game, so the starting line-up was Foster; Rose, Cathcart, Troost-Ekong, Femenía; Sissoko, Kucka; Dennis, Cleverley, Sarr; King.

Kucka on the ball

The game started very positively for the Hornets when King played in Dennis who had two strikes from a tight angle, but Darlow in the Newcastle goal repelled them both.  Then Sarr won a free kick in a dangerous position, Cleverley’s delivery was headed clear but dropped to Rose who blazed over.  The visitors called for a penalty after one of the Newcastle players went down in the box, the referee appeared to be consulting VAR, but nothing was given.  The visitors had a couple of good chances to take the lead from corners.  The first was met by the head of Fernández whose effort was tipped over by Foster.  The next dropped to Longstaff whose shot flew just over the top corner.  The first caution of the game was earned by Dennis who had lost possession to Longstaff, so dragged the Newcastle man back.  The first booking for the visitors came soon after as Sissoko tried to release Rose whose progress was halted by a push from Manquillo.  There was a very odd incident as Cleverley and Darlow challenged for a ball in the box, the Newcastle keeper had appeared to fly into Cleverley, but the referee gave the free kick his way.  The Watford man was down receiving treatment while both sets of fans chanted “You don’t know what you’re doing” at the referee.  Not a good sign that early in the game as nobody seemed to trust the official. 

Ngakia takes a throw-in

The visitors took the lead in the 24th minute, Foster could possibly have done better with Longstaff’s shot from the edge of the area, but he could only help it into the top corner.  Ritchie was the next in the referee’s book after he rugby-tackled Sarr when he attempted to break forward.   Just after the half hour mark, Sarr went on a run through the middle and tried a shot through the crowd, but Darlow was down to make a smart save.  Then Kucka won a free kick in a good position, he took it himself and it was a decent effort that was deflected for a corner, which came to nothing.  The next chance for the Hornets came from Troost-Ekong, who tried a shot from distance that was high and wide.  He was then booked for a tackle on Willock on the edge of the box.  At this point the guys in the row behind decided they would go a little early for their half time beers.  Ritchie took the free kick which was headed over by Clark.  The visitors threatened again as Joelinton headed the ball down to Willock but the shot hit the side netting.  The visitors should have extended their lead when Cathcart gave the ball away to Saint-Maximin, Foster came out to meet him, so he played the ball to Longstaff who was distracted enough by the defenders who had got back that he fired over the open goal.  In time added on at the end of the half, both Kucka and Saint-Maximin had shots that were blocked.  The half time whistle went to boos from those who hadn’t yet headed for the bar.  It had been a frustrating half of football.  The referee was struggling and the Hornets had been shambolic.

Ozan Tufan

At half time, Xisco made a concussion substitution bringing Tufan on for Cleverley.  It has to be said that it had been some time since the collision with Darlow, so it seemed rather late in the day if Tom was concussed.  The Turk made an immediate impact, finding Dennis who broke into the box, but his shot was blocked.  Rose was then booked for a robust tackle on the edge of the box.  Ritchie hit the resulting free kick into the wall and then hit the rebound into the Vicarage Road end.  Watford had a decent chance to draw level when Dennis found King on the edge of the area, the Norwegian turned and shot but his effort was over the bar.  Then Rose crossed for Dennis, but he was unable to make a clean connection and his header went out for a goal kick.  An impressive counterattack by King came to nothing as he held on to the ball too long when there were better options and Manquillo made the block.  Xisco’s first ‘proper’ substitution came when João Pedro came on for Kucka.  The home fans were very happy to see the youngster back in action.  The visitors had a great chance to increase their lead after Almirón went on a run and took a shot that was stopped by a great save from Foster, Joelinton picked up the rebound, his shot from a narrow angle was blocked.  Watford then made another change bringing Ngakia on for Femenía.  Newcastle threatened again as Saint-Maximin released Willock, who was one-on-one with Foster, but the Watford keeper was down to make the block.  Cathcart was the next to be booked for a foul on Almirón.  Willock tried his luck with a shot from distance, but it flew over the bar. 

Celebrating the goal

The Hornets equalised on 72 minutes when a corner from Rose was flicked on by King to Sarr who headed home, much to the relief of the Vicarage Road faithful.  The Hornets made their final substitution soon after, replacing Dennis with Etebo.  The Hornets created another decent chance as Tufan played a lovely ball to Sarr who advanced before rushing his shot which flew over the bar.  Such a waste.  With just over 10 minutes to go, Newcastle made their first change bringing Murphy on for Almirón.  The visitors had a great chance to regain the lead when Clark met a cross from Ritchie with a header that flew just wide of the back post.  It rolled behind the goal and looked in from our vantage point in the Rookery, which caused a few hearts to flutter.  Bruce made another change replacing Willock with Gayle.  The Hornets thought they had scored the winner in the 87th minute when a shot from Sissoko was parried by Darlow and King turned it in.  There was a joyous celebration in the Rookery, bundles everywhere.  Sadly, when we turned back to face the pitch, it was clear that VAR had been evoked.  When the decision came through, the referee pointed to the centre circle which evoked cheers from the Rookery until we realised that he was pointing upfield for the free kick.  Infuriating!  Another promising move came to nothing when Tufan cut the ball back to Sarr, but the youngster couldn’t quite reach it.  

Gathering for a late corner

The fourth official indicated 4 minutes of added time which, given the amount of time that had been wasted by the visitors, seemed very stingy.  On that note Darlow was finally booked in time added on after rearranging his belongings before taking a goal kick.  The Hornets had another chance for a winner as Tufan played a lovely through ball to Sarr who appeared to hold back from the challenge as Darlow came to collect, but the Newcastle keeper still went down claiming injury.  At the other end Saint-Maximin played Murphy through for a one-on-one with Foster, but the Watford keeper came out the winner.  The ball was immediately back in the Newcastle half where Pedro crossed for King who just missed connecting with the ball.  Etebo was injured in the dying moments of the game and had to limp off leaving the Hornets with only 10 men.  But the game finished with honours even.

The post-match discussions were dominated by complaints about the referee.  He had struggled badly and, following a rash of yellow cards early in the game, it seemed unlikely that the game would finish with 22 men on the pitch.  He started the game blowing up for everything but later let some very robust tackles go.  His cards were also inconsistent, which always causes annoyance.  He did not clamp down on the Newcastle time wasting and was taken in by their theatricality.  The strange signalling after the VAR decision was the final straw.  But, while he hadn’t helped, the blame for the draw could not be laid completely at his door.  Watford had been shambolic in the first half and were lucky not to be more than a goal down at half time.  It probably didn’t help that Cleverley played much of the first half with concussion.  The second half performance was much better.  Tufan impressed again.  It was a shame that King’s goal was disallowed as he really needed that goal, but he has impressed me by not hiding and creating a number of chances. The goals will come.

All in all, the feeling at the end of the day was frustration more than anything else.  But four points from the Norwich and Newcastle games is a decent haul.  I am not confident for the trip to Leeds on any level, but will travel in hope of a decent day out so any points will be a bonus.

Missed Chances and Flukey Goals

Sierralta and Elliot in conversation

For once my travel planning went well and I arrived at Euston just as the 5:09 was about to leave, so was in Watford pleasingly early.  During the day, some of our group that had been intending to go to the game had to drop out due to various ailments meaning that the attendance at the West Herts was likely to be sparse.  I was saved with a guest appearance from Mike, a friend from City Orns, who was also without his usual football mates, so deigned to come and have a drink with me.  The turn out overall was very sparse in the bar, so I was not expecting much of a crowd.

We left in plenty of time for the game and there was no queue at the Rookery turnstiles, but they seemed to have upped the security.  The guy checking bags was complaining that he couldn’t see the contents.  Surely, he should have been equipped with a torch for an evening game.  Then I was told that I would have to be patted down.  I asked why they had started this and was told that they have been doing it for several weeks, which was clearly not the case as this was the first time that I had seen anyone being searched at those turnstiles.

Louza and debutant Tufan

Team news was that there would be debuts for Rob Elliot and Ozan Tufan.  The starting line-up was Elliot; Masina, Sierralta, Kabasele, Ngakia; Louza, Tufan, Gosling; Sema, Fletcher, Hernández.  Ben Wilmot was starting for Stoke and was given a really good reception by the Watford fans.

Prior to kick-off, there was a minute’s applause for Jimmy Greaves which was enthusiastically supported by all in the ground.

The game kicked off and there were early chances for both teams when, first Doughty for the visitors, and then Tufan for the Hornets blazed shots over the bar.  Stoke created the next chance after Tymon beat Louza and found Powell who shot wide of the near post.  The visitors opened the scoring on 25 minutes.  It came from a mistake from Ngakia who was trying to shepherd the ball out near the corner flag, Doughty nicked it off him and crossed for Powell who turned the ball in at the near post.  The Hornets tried to hit back after a lovely run from Hernández (who I failed to identify for 40 minutes due to his newly dark hair) who found Gosling who set up Masina for a shot that was parried by Davies, the ball found its way back to Gosling whose shot required a decent save from Davies to preserve the Stoke lead. 

Gathering for a corner

The Hornets threatened again when Sema crossed to the far post for Gosling whose header flew over the bar.  Watford should have drawn level after what looked like a mishit shot from Ngakia was headed back across goal by Kabasele to Masina, who had the goal at his mercy, but shot over the bar.  At the other end, Tymon hit a low shot from distance, but Elliot was down to make the save.  Then a cross from Hernández was headed clear to Masina who shot wide of the target.  The Hornets had another decent chance from a corner, when Kabasele’s header was blocked and the ball fell to Ngakia but the shot was over the bar.  The visitors had the last chance of the half, also from a corner, but Batth headed wide and we reached half time with the Hornets a goal down.

It was World Alzheimer’s Day so, at half time, a film about the Golden Memories scheme was shown on the big screen.  It was really lovely.  It is such an amazing project that is doing so much good for fans with dementia.  It was especially lovely to see Rita Taylor and Luther Blissett working as volunteers sharing memories with the fans.

Louza congratulates Fletcher on his goal as Sierralta looks very happy

The Hornets had an excellent chance at the start of the second half as Hernández crossed for Fletcher whose header was on target but Davies, again, managed to make the save.  The Hornets had another decent chance after a lovely cross-field pass from Louza found Hernández on the right, he advanced before cutting into the box to hit a shot that was deflected over the bar.  Another lovely move deserved more as Tufan played the ball out to Hernández who crossed for Fletcher, but his header was easily saved by Davies.  Watford threatened again as Masina crossed for Tufan whose header was dropping for Sema until Davies intervened.  Hernández was a complete menace at this stage and started the next move, playing the ball out to Tufan who crossed for Gosling whose header flew just past the top corner.  Just after the hour mark Fletcher found Hernández in the box, his shot was blocked by Davies, but dropped nicely for Fletcher who back heeled it over the line.  I checked that the lino wasn’t flagging before celebrating.  Michael in the row in front then checked that there was no VAR, so I knew I wasn’t the only one.  There was a double substitution for Stoke as Sima and Clucas replaced Surridge and Doughty.  The Hornets really should have taken the lead after Masina crossed to the back post for Hernández whose header rebounded back off the post and fell to Fletcher whose shot was deflected onto the same post.  How did that stay out? 

Gosling and Louza in conversation

Each side then made a change with Powell making way for Sawyers for the visitors and Sissoko replacing Louza for the Hornets.  Then, in the 80th minute, out of nowhere, Watford were behind again when Clucas hit a curling shot from the edge of the area that took a slight deflection before nestling in the far corner.  It was their first real chance of the half and very frustrating after what had been a wonderful spell from the Hornets.  Almost immediately, Dennis, who had been preparing to come on for a while, replaced Gosling.  He was involved in the next attack after Sema played the ball back to him, but his shot was blocked.  The visitors threatened to increase their lead when Clucas hit a curling shot from the edge of the area that bounced back off the crossbar.  Stoke scored their third with a total fluke as Tymon crossed, it flew over Elliot and somehow the ball was in the top corner.  I was a bit shell-shocked at this point and many in the home crowd decided that they had seen enough.  The Hornets had a really good chance to pull one back after Sema advanced down the left and cut the ball back for Sissoko, but the shot was blocked by Dennis!!  It really wasn’t our day.  Then Tufan tried a shot from distance, but Davies got a hand to it.  Into time added on, Dennis won a free kick, which was taken by Tufan who blazed it over the bar and into the Rookery.

A dark haired Cucho with Fletcher and Tufan

At full time, there was a lot of grumbling, but Alex, who sits behind me, was very philosophical and echoed my feelings that we had played well and been really unlucky on the day.  We should have finished the chances that we had, but sometimes the post and the opposition keeper frustrate you.  Also, while Stoke’s first goal was due to a mistake, the other two came out of nothing, with the third appearing to be a complete fluke.  Watford had been very positive going forward and Cucho had a magnificent game, proving that blonds don’t always have more fun.  He worked well with Fletcher, who got into some great positions and deserved his goal.  Tufan’s debut was impressive and, if he continues in that vein, he will soon become a fan favourite.  Ngakia was at fault for the first goal, but he didn’t let it affect him and put in a decent performance after that.  So, there were plenty of positives to take out of a game which was far better than the scoreline suggested.

Also, in contrast to the Palace game, I arrived at the Junction to see that the 10:05 (fast train to Euston) was sitting on Platform 9.  I boarded with a couple of minutes to spare, so my journey home was painless and I was indoors at a very civilised hour.

There is no harm in no longer having the distraction of this cup which, given the attendance was only 8,421, is hardly a priority for the fans.  We can now look forward to the visit of Newcastle on Saturday and the hope that we can build on the positives from the Norwich game.

An Important Win in Norwich

Cleverley back as captain

I was supposed to be at the wedding of one of my dearest friends on Saturday.  It had been postponed from 2020 and had been on my calendar for the past year.  Unfortunately, the wedding was in Salem MA and we are banned from travelling to the US for such trivial events.  I held out to the last minute, checking the various websites to see if the Presidential Proclamation would be revoked, but it wasn’t to be.  So, I awoke on Saturday morning in my own bed contemplating a trip to Norwich.  After the terrible performance against Wolves, I had even more reason not to be looking forward to this game.  I was in a foul mood as I got ready to leave the house.  I was at Liverpool Street in plenty of time for my train and the station was packed with people in yellow shirts, a variety of Watford vintages and the odd one with green on it.  My mood didn’t improve when I found that there was no first class on the train and the train was packed, but I had a seat and a good book, so really had nothing to complain about.  I arrived in Norwich to bright sunshine for the lovely walk to the pub and suddenly the world seemed a happier place.

Sarr and King

My party was already in place at an outside table, and I was quizzed on why I was so late (it was 1:15).  To be fair, I would have got an earlier train had I not booked so late that the earlier trains were much more expensive.  I had seen Glenn on the way in, who said that he had brought pork scratchings, but they were all gone.  I knew my friends wouldn’t be so cruel, there were still some left and they were gorgeous.  The queue for the bar reached out of the door, but I joined it and waited patiently to buy my round.  There were lots of familiar faces including Amy who introduced me to Simona Rakovic-Irish, our new Supporter Liaison Assistant, who immediately went into my good books as she told me she had read my blog.  Meg Clarkson and Dave Messenger were also there, meeting the Norfolk ‘Orns.  Heaven help them!

Team news was that there were four changes from the Wolves game with Foster, Femenía, Cathcart and Cleverley in for Bachmann, Ngakia, Sierralta and Etebo.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Rose, Cathcart, Troost-Ekong, Femenía; Sissoko, Kucka, Cleverley, Dennis, King, Sarr.  The Sierralta omission caused some comment as he wasn’t even on the bench.

Dennis et al celebrating the first goal with the travelling Hornets

The game kicked off and the Hornets had an early chance from a corner, Cleverley’s delivery was met by Cathcart who headed wide of the target.  Unfortunately, I missed this.  I had gone to the ladies when I got into the ground and then couldn’t find my ticket, so had no idea where my seat was.  I had wandered up the nearest steps, but there was no sign of my friends.  Luckily, as I had bought the tickets, I knew I would have an email with the seat numbers, but I had also bought a season ticket for the Women’s team on the same day, so my Norwich purchase was hidden.  I finally found the email that I needed and was in my seat when Dennis unleashed a low shot straight at Krul, who made a comfortable save.  The first chance for Norwich came from a free kick in a dangerous position but Normann’s delivery was straight at Foster.  At the other end, Cleverley delivered a lovely cross into the box, Kucka threw himself at it but couldn’t connect.  The Hornets took the lead in the 17th minute when a lovely cross from Femenía was headed home by Dennis.  The lads in the row in front of us decided to run to the front of the stand where there appeared to be a bundle with the players.  Sadly, I missed the Dennis backflip celebration, but the photos are beautiful. 

Ben Foster and William Troost-Ekong

The Hornets threatened again with a brilliant counterattack that started with a wonderful cross-field pass from Rose that released Sarr who put a lovely cross into the box which, sadly, was cut out before it reached King.  Then Femenía went on a run and put in a cross for King in the box but, again, the cross was blocked.  The home side equalised in the 35th minute as Normann lofted a lovely ball to Pukki who ran on to it and shot past Foster.  Hornet nerves were further on edge after Cathcart was booked for a foul on Sargent, giving the home side a free-kick on the edge of the box.  The delivery appeared to bounce dangerously around the box before Pukki headed over.  Watford then had a decent chance after Sissoko found Femenía on the wing, he played in Sarr who turned and shot but Krul was equal to it.  There was danger for the Hornets towards the end of the half as Kucka lost out to Sargent in the Watford box, he played the ball back to Pukki whose shot was, thankfully, well over the bar.  In time added on at the end of the half, Rose released Sarr, who was one-on-one with Krul, he tried to chip the keeper who managed to get a hand to it and divert it for a corner.

So, we reached the break with the sides level.  It had been an enjoyable half of football with some lovely play from the Hornets.  One thing that I had noticed was that Sarr seemed reluctant to use his pace and would stop and wait to pick out a pass.  Maybe more pressure on the Norwich defence would pay dividends.

Celebrating Sarr’s first strike

The first chance of the second half fell to the home side, a ball to Pukki in the box appeared to have been controlled with his arm, the ball fell to Sargent who returned it to the Finn who was in on goal until Troost-Ekong got a crucial touch to put the ball out for a corner.  The first change of the game came as Femenía, who had been struggling with an injury picked up at the end of the first half, was replaced by Ngakia.  It was such a shame to lose Kiko, as he was having a tremendous game.  The Hornets regained the lead in the 64th minute after a lovely move, Ngakia advanced down the right wing and found King in the box who pulled the ball back for Sarr to finish past Krul.  The home side should have levelled again almost immediately when Cathcart failed to cut out a ball to Pukki, but the shot was poor and flew wide of the far post.  With 20 minutes to go, Farke made a double substitution replacing Sargent and Normann with Tzolis and Cantwell.  The Hornets threatened again following a great run from Sarr who crossed for Dennis, who just failed to connect.  That was the Nigerian’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Sema.  Norwich looked to hit back when McLean went on a run and shot from the edge of the box, but Foster was down to make the save.  The home side had an even better chance when a cut back from Tzolis found Rachica whose shot required a good save from Foster to keep it out. 

Gathering in the Norwich box

With 10 minutes to go, the Hornets had the ball in the net for a third time after Cleverley fed King, his shot was saved but the ball rebounded to Sarr who beat Krul to spark mad celebrations in the away end.  I had just broken from a hug with Jacque when I noticed that those around us had gone quiet.  The goal had been disallowed for offside.  There were shouts of VAR from the away end.  The referee paused, then made the sign of the screen and indicated that the goal was given.  The shot had been at the opposite end of the ground to us, but the delay meant that Tom Cleverley was standing right in front of us.  He and Ben Foster both celebrated wildly (as did we).  It showed how much the goal meant.  Good old VAR!!  Cleverley was then replaced by Etebo.  The Hornets were shouting for a penalty after Sema battled his way into the box before being knocked to the ground.  It looked like a foul from our vantage point and there were more shouts for VAR, but the referee just waved play on.  The home side made a final late substitution as Rashica made way for Idah.  In the last minute of the game, Sarr had a decent chance to grab a hat trick as he received a pass from King and took a shot, but Krul got a hand to it and put it out for a corner.

What a difference a win makes.  There were smiles all around and Xisco made sure that the players all stayed and applauded the crowd.  There were also a good few shirts given out, which is always appreciated.  Songs rang out in the concourse, and I caught up with Don Fraser as he belted out a chant.  The mystery of my missing ticket was solved as Jacque noticed that it was tucked in the back of my trousers.  I must have missed my pocket!

Cleverley takes a corner

We headed back into town for a pre-train drink on the riverside and to relive a convincing win.  While it has to be acknowledged that Norwich were poor, this was a good performance by the Hornets.  Cleverley was excellent, providing the link between the defence and the forward line that has been missing in a lot of games.  It was great to see Femenía back, he was lively and created a lot.  I hope that the injury is short-lived.  Dennis had a decent game and, while King didn’t get on the scoresheet, he was very involved, got into a lot of great positions and provided the assists for Sarr.  Sarr was superb and I was pleased that he started putting in more runs in the second half.  He could easily have scored more than the two goals.  It was an important win and will give us confidence for the visit of Newcastle next week.

Despite this being our third away game of the season, it felt like our first proper day out.  I am not sure why, maybe because it was the first at 3pm on a Saturday or because the journey was longer than to Brighton and Spurs.  Or maybe because it was a cracking day out, the sun shone, the company was excellent, and Norwich is a lovely place to visit.  It reminded me why I do this every week.  I love football again.

Surrender to the Wolves

Moussa Sissoko makes his first appearance at Vicarage Road

After the international break, it felt like an age since the Tottenham game.  I arrived at the West Herts to find that none of our crew had arrived yet, but there was a cricket match going on and a table free.  It was such a lovely afternoon that I decided to sit outside and make the most of the late summer good weather.  Eventually, our crew arrived, en masse, and Franny-no-mates was suddenly swamped.  It was also lovely to catch up with Rod Fine.  He and I are both theatre fans, so we swapped recommendations.  There was a Sri Lankan barbecue setting up, that I had assumed was for the cricketers, as it was the last game of the season, but I saw some fellow fans enquiring so went and had a look and returned with a lovely piece of chicken barbecued with Sri Lankan spices.  My sister got the roti dish, which was also delicious.

We headed for the ground at our normal time and, given the problems that had happened at previous games with the digital tickets, I was pleased to see that there was no queue at the Rookery turnstiles.  The reason for this was quickly apparent as we were not given the chance to try our tickets.  The steward looked at the ticket on the phone and passed us in.  I know I am ridiculously obsessive, but this irritated me as there will be no record of my attendance at the game.

Bachmann takes a free kick

There was a lot of discussion before the game about players who had not travelled to red list countries with their international teams being banned from playing, but this did not come to pass so both Sierralta (hoorah) and Jiménez (boo) were allowed to play.  The team news was that Muñoz had made two changes from the Tottenham game with Ngakia and Rose in for Cathcart and Masina.  William Troost-Ekong was named captain.  So, the starting line-up was Bachmann; Rose, Sierralta, Troost-Ekong, Ngakia; Kucka, Etebo, Sissoko; Dennis, King, Sarr.

The visitors started strongly and had their first real chance in the fifth minute when Traoré beat Ngakia and found Neves whose shot was blocked.  The same two players combined for the next chance, on this occasion the shot from Neves was wide of the target.  The first action of note from a Watford player came when Etebo was booked for taking down Trincão.  Given that the Hornets had done nothing in the first quarter of an hour, it was a surprise that Watford could have taken the lead after a lovely move which started with a pass from Ngakia to Sarr, he released Sissoko whose shot required a decent save from the Wolves keeper, Sá, to keep it out.  The resulting corner was headed clear only as far as Etebo who mishit a volley that flew high and wide of the target. 

Challenging at a corner

A decent cross from Sissoko deserved better than King swinging at it rather aimlessly, an easy save for Sá.  Wolves looked sure to open the scoring when Jiménez broke into the box, he was tackled, but a lucky rebound fell to him, thankfully Troost-Ekong was back to make a brilliant saving tackle.  Watford threatened again as Etebo released Dennis whose cut back shot was parried by Sá.  The visitors looked to make the breakthrough as Jiménez tried to find Trincão, but Rose was back to make a brilliant interception and the ball ran through to Bachmann.  Another promising move from the Hornets came to nothing after Ngakia played a lovely ball over the top to Sarr whose cross was cut out before it reached King.  At the other end Trincão fashioned a shot but Bachmann was down to save.  Then Rose played a lovely cross-field ball to Dennis who tried a looping shot that cleared the bar.  The Hornets had a great chance to take the lead when Sissoko fed Sarr who crossed for King, who had the goal at his mercy, but just missed connecting with the cross.  In the last minutes of the half, the visitors won a free kick in a dangerous position, but Moutinho’s delivery was poor and flew well over the bar.  The visitors had one final chance to open the scoring before half time as Semedo charged into the box, but Bachmann was down to save at his feet while the home fans were still screaming about a foul on Kucka in the build-up.  From the corner, Saïss headed goalwards but Bachmann was equal to it, so the first half finished goalless.

It had been a fairly even half.  The visitors started the stronger, it took about 15 minutes for the Hornets to wake up but, once we did, we created the best of the chances.

King and Kucka

The visitors created the first chance of the second half as Traoré crossed for Trincão whose header was easily caught by Bachmann.  At the other end, King broke into the box, but the attentions of the defenders meant that he was unable to shoot, the ball came out to Etebo who shot well over the bar.  Xisco made an early substitution bringing Hernández on for King, who looked very unhappy about being replaced.  Semedo really should have opened the scoring for the visitors, but he shot wide of the far post when it looked easier to hit the target.  The first change for Wolves saw Hwang come on for Trincão.  Watford’s next chance came when Cucho found Sarr who tried a shot from an angle that was easy for Sá.  The game was getting a bit scrappy, and the cards started to appear.  First Rose for a foul on Traoré, then Marçal for taking Sarr down, finally Dennis, again for a foul on Traoré.  The latter infringement provided a great chance for the visitors as Moutinho’s free kick was met by Jiménez, but his header was well wide of the target when he really should have done better.  With 15 minutes remaining, the visitors took the lead as a corner was taken short, the cross into the box didn’t look that dangerous, but Sierralta was aware of the Wolves players lurking behind him and headed the ball past Bachmann.  Not a good goal to give away and the Hornets never looked like getting back in the game.  Xisco’s second change saw Sema replace Etebo.  The visitors also made a change with Traoré making way for Podence.  The second Wolves goal came from a bit of a scramble in the box, Marçal’s shot was parried by Bachmann, but the defence was in a mess and Hwang was able to poke the rebound home.  The Hornets were well beaten at this point and their final attack was pretty typical of the afternoon, Dennis had the ball in a dangerous position in the box but managed to put the ball out for a goal kick rather than getting a shot in.

Danny Rose lines up a free kick

After some promising play in the first half, it had been a pretty dreadful second half.  There seemed to be no threat upfront.  So often crosses went into the box and there was nobody there to meet them.  I felt that Sarr was playing too wide and, even though Cucho injected some pace into the game, there seemed to be no understanding between the attacking players.  On the positive side, Rose was impressive and Ngakia was excellent.  I hope that they will continue in the full back positions.

It was a pretty disappointing afternoon.  We have a talented squad, but they were not playing as a team.  A number of people commented on how much we were missing the leadership of Deeney, but he is gone now, so others will have to step up.  The next two games are definitely in the ‘winnable’ category.  I only hope that our team performs to the best of their ability and starts picking up some points.

Women of Watford’s First Day Out

The WoW crew with GT

On International Women’s Day this year, I was one of three female Watford fans who were invited on to Hive Live to talk about the experience of being a woman attending football matches supporting Watford.  One of the other participants was Kate Lewers.  I knew who Kate was through her social media contributions including appearances on From the Rookery End, but had only ever met her once, briefly, when we sat ‘next’ to each other at the Brentford game last season when we were allowed back at matches between lockdowns.

I was surprised and, I am ashamed to say, a little scathing, when she said that she had never been to a game without a man and that she would be concerned about doing so.  I am considerably older than Kate and have spent a lot of my life going to football in female company.  When I first started going as a teenager, I went with female friends and my sisters, so it was something completely normal for me right from the start.  But as she spoke, and then expanded her experiences and concerns on From the Rookery End, I understood and empathised with her.  Her appearance on Hive Live led to a suggestion from Dave Messenger (Watford’s previous Supporter Liaison Officer and now Equality, Diversity and Disability Access Officer) that she set up a group for women supporters.  He put her in touch with me, as he knows that I travel home and away, so may have some ideas on how to navigate away travel as a woman, and Women of Watford (WoW) was born. 

Flo Fyfe and Captain Helen Ward

With the return to live football, the opportunity for an outing had not yet happened, but Kate suggested that we meet up at the first Watford Women home game this season which was to be played at Vicarage Road.  I bought a season ticket, as they were a bargain, but Kate had been in touch with Amber Wildgust, the General Manager, who had offered her a block of tickets.  Very kindly, these tickets were given gratis, so Kate suggested that recipients, if able, made a donation to the WFC Community Trust.

We were in Watford bright and early and had arranged to meet at the GT statue.  When I got there, Kate was already in attendance and soon the others who had requested tickets arrived to meet us.  We were briefly joined by Kieran Theivam, who I first met on a pre-season tour in Lleida (Spain) when Malky was manager.  He has been a great supporter of Women’s football for many years and is now Communications Manager at the FA working on the WSL and Women’s Championship.  With Watford Women promoted to the Championship last season, he was there in a professional capacity, so it was very much appreciated that he took the time to stop by and say hello to the group.

Rosie Kmita

As we were contemplating going inside the stadium, I saw my friend Don Fraser, who had just had some lunch at the café on Vicarage Road.  I decided to accompany him down Occupation Road and enter the GT stand at the Rookery end of the ground, which is nearer to his seat.  He had parked down near the ticket office and told me that the referee had pushed him up Occupation Road when he had headed for his lunch.  The hand-held scanners that the stewards at the disabled entrance were using were not working as they were set for another game, but we managed to use the turnstiles to verify the tickets and then entered the ground.  I left Don in his usual seat and joined the WoW group to watch the game.  They all had programmes and said that they were given them at the turnstiles.  So I headed to the Vicarage Road turnstiles where I spotted Wolfie and got my programme from him.  He then headed into the stand to give them out (I should have waited and saved myself a trek up the stairs).

The starting line-up for the Hornets was Ferguson, Clifford, Priest, Meiwald, Kmita, Chandler, Beckett, Stobbs, Henson, Fyfe, Ward.

Anticipation built before kick-off and then Z-cars rang out and the teams appeared from the tunnel together, which was rather lovely as I don’t remember seeing that in a while.  Prior to kick-off, both teams took the knee to warm applause from the crowd.

Challenging at a corner

Watford, as a newly promoted team, were expected to find this game challenging as Liverpool were newly relegated and the visitors started strongly, drawing a double save from Ferguson in the 4th minute as first Holland and then Lawley shot for goal.  But the relief was short-lived as the Hornets were a goal down a minute later when a corner from Kearns went straight in off Ferguson’s hands.  A young family had come and sat just in front of us and, when the players lined up for the restart, the little girl shouted ‘Mummy, Mummy.’  Helen Ward turned and waved to her.  Later the children took their coats off to reveal shirts with “Ward 10” on the back.  We were in the presence of Watford royalty!  Watford’s first chance of the game came as Ward ran in on goal, but Wardlaw challenged and her shot was wide.  Immediately Liverpool were on the attack, but Kiernan’s shot was straight into the arms of Ferguson.  The visitors had a great chance to increase their lead as Dean got her head to a cross from Wardlaw but her effort flew just wide of the target.  On the half hour, Holland had a couple of chances to increase the lead but eventually the ball was caught by Ferguson.  Sadly, the visitors were not to be denied as the Hornets went two down when a shot from the edge of the area by Dean found the top corner.  A couple of minutes later, the visitors had the ball in the net again as a cross was cut back and headed home, but it was ruled out for offside.  But the third Liverpool goal came soon after as a lovely ball from Lawley found Dean in space and she shot into the far corner.  Watford tried to strike back before the break as Kmita went on a run and crossed for Fyfe whose shot was blocked.  There was an even better chance soon after as Ward released Stobbs, who crossed for Fyfe but her shot was just wide of the target.

So, the Hornets reached half-time three goals down.  It had been a difficult half for the Golden Girls, Liverpool had completely dominated and were good value for their lead.  At half-time it was lovely to catch up with Miles Jacobson, Football Manager gaffer, good mate and Watford Fan, & John Priestley, whose wife, Sarah, is Heritage Officer at Watford Museum and a good friend of mine.

Kmita launches a throw-in

There were two Watford substitutions at the start of the second half with Harney and Legg coming on for Henson and Beckett.  The Hornets made a positive start to the second half with some great work from Kmita who made space to take a shot that required a good save from Foster in the Liverpool goal to keep it out.  The visitors had a chance to increase their lead as Kiernan crossed for Dean, whose header cleared the bar.  The Hornets then had a chance of their own from a corner as Priest met Kmita’s delivery with a header that just missed the target.  Just after the hour mark, Lancaster made his third change bringing Fatuga-Dada on for Fyfe.  It had been a half of few chances, the next one of note falling to the visitors as Kiernan crossed for Dean who headed wide.  But the Golden Girls pulled one back soon after with a tremendous goal as a misplaced pass fell to Meiwald who advanced to the edge of the box and hit a lovely shot past Foster.  The goal inspired the Hornets who created another chance from a corner with Priest having two attempts to reduce the deficit further, the first was blocked, the second caught by Foster.  There were two more changes for the home side as Clifford and Stobbs were replaced with Ali and Meola.  As the clock ran down, Watford were in command, so the announcement of 6 minutes of added time was met with cheers.  Two minutes in, Kmita made a run down the left and crossed for Ward to head past Foster.  The goal was celebrated wildly, especially among the Ward family.  It was so lovely to see how thrilled her children were to see her score.  Sadly, that was the end of the scoring, but it had been a great end to the game.  I don’t think any of us would have predicted a defeat by only one goal at half time.

I have to admit that this is the first time that I have seen the women’s team play live.  I thoroughly enjoyed the game, it was very entertaining and there was some lovely football played.  While Liverpool were clearly the better side in the first half, the Hornets adapted and kept them very quiet in the second half then managed to create some great chances which gave the visitors a scare and could have earned them a point.  It was also noticeable that the Liverpool players went down very easily.  They could almost have been men …..

Ade Fatuga-Dada prepares to take a free kick

At the end of the game, the players came over to clap the fans and the sight of little girls lining up at the side of the pitch for pictures with the players, who gladly obliged, brought tears to the eyes of our group.  Aspiring footballers there will have seen a Women’s team compete with a ‘name’ team at a Premier League stadium, showing them what is possible.

For the WoW crowd, it had been a wonderful afternoon spent with a group of strangers who immediately bonded over our shared love of Watford.  We swapped anecdotes and experiences and it was just lovely.  But one comment that stuck with me was from Wendy and Josie (mother and daughter).  They had been visiting Upton Park and were (unsurprisingly) quite intimidated by the atmosphere there.  So, they sought out the nearest nail bar and had their nails done.  This has become quite a habit for them, although they cautioned that the nail bar near Spurs is terrible.  It has to be said that I would be a lot more intimidated by a nail bar than a football crowd, but that is a confirmation that there will never be a one-size-fits-all approach to making women comfortable at football.  But our hope is that, by providing a safe space for all, we can ensure that women travelling both home and away have the best experience. WoW have set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account so, if you would like to make contact, you will find us there.

Troy Deeney – Watford Legend

End of Season Dinner 2012

The first time that I remember meeting Troy Deeney was at the end of season dinner in 2012.  He was charming and charismatic, but a bit of a jack-the-lad and I wasn’t sure that he was a great role model for the youngsters.  That Summer he was imprisoned for affray, and it looked doubtful that we would ever see him again.  Many fans were calling for him to be sacked, but Sean Dyche and the club stood by him on his release and the rest is history.  At the awards evening in 2014, I met Troy early in the evening when I was waiting to have my photo taken with the player that I was sponsoring (Gabriele Angella) and he made a point of complimenting me on my dress, telling me how much it suited me.  It was a cracking dress, to be fair, but at that moment, in complimenting a middle-aged woman on her frock, Troy went from jack-the-lad to delightful young man and he stayed there for the rest of his time at Watford.

End of Season 2014 with the good frock

When the Pozzos took over and brought in players who were a considerable upgrade on what we had seen before, it wasn’t obvious that Troy would stay long at the club.  But he worked incredibly hard and made himself indispensable, for his leadership skills as much as his prowess in front of goal.  It seems as though, every season since, there has been speculation that he would move on, but he always stayed and we were always glad that he had.  This season, it was clear that he would no longer be the main man, but I hoped that he would stay as he still had plenty to contribute.  But, this was probably the right time for him to leave, it is just such a shame that we didn’t get the opportunity to say goodbye.

Troy will be remembered for so many great moments.  I remember very little from games, but …. That goal in 2013 is one that none of us will ever forget and one that still quickens my heart and brings tears to my eyes every time I see it, or even when it is mentioned.  The scenes on the bus on the way back from Brighton in 2015 when we secured promotion to the Premier League.  Then that penalty in the FA Cup semi-final.  He was nerveless as my legs gave way from under me.

Troy and Rita – just gorgeous

But it was his actions off the pitch that secured legend status for me.  I loved the respect that Troy had for GT and, after his passing, for Rita.  Seeing Troy and Rita together on the pitch at the GT matches always made me happy and the way that he spoke about her was just lovely.

I also appreciated his kindness to me and other fans.  Whenever I encountered Troy at matches or events, he would acknowledge me and give me a kiss.  He was attentive and seemed to enjoy meeting the fans.  You never felt like a pest.

But two memories of Troy will always stick with me.  The first was a pre-season trip to Woking.  When I got through the turnstiles, I looked for Don Fraser.  When I spotted him, I saw that Troy was on the other side of the fence, squatting down and chatting away to him.  They had gathered quite the crowd, but Troy was there for ages just chatting away to an old mate.  The other was when Toddy passed away.  Jon Marks told Troy at the training ground, and he immediately whipped his phone out and posted to Twitter that Watford had lost a very special fan.  Neither of these events were world shattering, but they were little moments that meant the world to me and Don and those who love Toddy.  For those as much as for everything that he did on the pitch, I will always love him.

Defeat Tempered by Reconnecting with Friends

Troost-Ekong, Bachmann and Sierralta

Our game had been moved to Sunday due to Spurs having played a Europa Conference League game on Thursday.  This caused problems for some travelling, due to some odd rail closures.  It seemed rather exotic that Pete was having to get a train from St Neots.  Being a North Londoner now, I had no such problems as I could catch a bus that went past the ground from a stop 5 minutes’ walk from my house.  I didn’t fancy spending quite that long on a bus, though, so I opted to walk to Manor House and pick it up there.  As we turned up Tottenham High Road, there were already a lot of Spurs fans in evidence. 

It turned out that I had planned my journey unexpectedly well and was at the Redemption Brewery Tap soon after it opened.  On arrival, I was delighted to see Hazel sitting at a table outside, so I went to join her.  Graham soon appeared with the beers and Nick was at the next table and moved to join us.  So, the company was already excellent.  Unfortunately, there was only one guy on duty at the bar, his colleague being absent due to a Covid contact, so the queues for the beer soon built and most were coming back with a pint in each hand.

There was a lot of catching up to do, it was hard to believe that some of us hadn’t met in nearly 18 months but catching up with old friends meant that we just picked up where we had left off.

Masina takes a free kick

We also caught up with Dave Messenger, who had brought his replacement as Supporter Liaison Officer along to meet some of the fans.  Meg is a Tottenham fan who had previously worked at West Ham, but I won’t hold that against her.  It has to be said that, after that experience, we are likely to be a doddle.  Although she did say that, as at most clubs, the loud ones are the most heard, but the majority of fans are lovely and just love their club.

We actually had paper tickets for this game, which seemed quite revolutionary.  On arrival at the stadium, I was asked to show both my ticket and my Covid pass.  I had taken note of the communications about leaving bags at home and put everything in the deep pockets in my cagoule.  I had completely forgotten about the metal detectors, which meant that I had to take everything out of my pockets before passing through.  The security guard, trying to be helpful, said that I only had to take metal things out of my pockets … keys, camera, purse, notebook (with metal spiral), pen.  That was everything other than my replica shirt.  I was rather irritated by the time I got in and my mood wasn’t improved when Mike informed me that he had sailed through even though he had a Swiss Army knife in his pocket.

Josh King with Emmanuel Dennis in the background

I arrived at my seat, which was with the City ‘Orns, and my mood immediately improved as I had a lovely catch up with Nigel and Judie and then Lynn and Becky arrived.  It was so lovely to see everybody after so long.  The smiles were wide and the hugs were warm.  

Team news was that Xisco had made four changes from the Brighton game with Kucka returning in place of Louza, Sierralta in for Kabasele, Sissoko, making his debut after his move from Spurs during the week, in place of Cleverley and King replacing Sema in the front three.  So, the starting line-up was Bachmann; Masina, Sierralta, Troost-Ekong, Cathcart; Kucka, Etebo, Sissoko; King, Dennis, Sarr.

Just after kick-off, Adam observed that we were doing better than last week as we hadn’t given the ball away yet.  Immediately we gave the ball away and Etebo had to tackle Kane in the box to avert the danger.  The Tottenham man went down, we held our breath, but the referee waved play on.  Watford immediately broke down the other end, Sissoko found Kucka whose shot was headed off the line by Dier.  Kane was the next to try his luck with a chip that flew over the bar.  Then Tanganga did really well to keep a pass from Højbjerg in play, he fed Bergwijn whose shot was deflected over by Cathcart. 

Ismaila Sarr

At the other end Sarr got on the end of a pass from King and tried a shot from a tight angle that was easily dealt with by Lloris.  The home side had a great chance to take the lead from a corner, as Tanganga tried to poke the ball past Bachmann, but the Watford keeper saved with his feet.  Dennis then went on a run and unleashed a shot that was blocked on the line by Højbjerg, King’s follow-up was weak and easily saved.  The Hornets won a free kick for a foul on Kucka by Skipp.  Dennis took the set piece and went for goal, but his shot was well over the bar.  Etebo picked up a soft card as he was booked after slipping while trying to tackle Kane and knocking him over.  Dier took the resulting free kick, his effort cleared the wall but flew straight into Bachmann’s arms.  The home side continued to threaten as a corner from Son was headed over by Sánchez.  Then a decent passing move from the home side finished with Son shooting wide of the near post.  At this point, Danny Rose was warming up and it was pleasing to see the home fans applauding him and singing his name.  Cathcart tested our nerves with a header back to Bachmann, with Bergwijn lurking, but the Watford keeper gathered the ball.  Alli then tried a shot from distance, but Bachmann was down to save.  With 4 minutes to go to half time, Spurs took the lead from a Son free kick that flew all the way in at the far post.  I can only assume that Bachmann delayed his dive as he was expecting someone to get a touch on it, but it looked like a goalkeeping mistake.  There were appeals for a penalty when Son went down in box, but they were waved away.  The last action of the half was a late tackle on Sarr that earned Kane a booking.

At half time, we were all quite happy.  It had been an enjoyable half of football and, while the home side had dominated possession, the Watford defence had done well.  It was just a shame that we had let in a relatively soft goal.

Cucho Hernandez

Watford kept their hosts waiting at the start of the second half with Spurs being out on the pitch for some time before the opposition appeared.  The Hornets were forced into an early change as Cathcart picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Ngakia.  First chance of the second half came from the visitors as Sarr played the ball back to Kucka, but his shot over the target.  Then Sissoko found Sarr who had two attempts at goal, the first was blocked and Lloris caught the second.  The home side looked to increase their lead as, first, a corner from Son was flicked over by Sánchez.  Then Son tried a shot from distance that was straight at Bachmann.  Sarr was getting some close attention from the Spurs players and Alli was booked for knocking him to the ground.  Sarr created the next chance, cutting the ball back to Sissoko who blasted it over the bar.  With 20 minutes gone in the second half Xisco made his second change replacing King with Hernández.  But it was the home side who had the next chance when a mistake from Kucka allowed Son to break forward, he found Kane who squared for Alli whose shot was just wide of the far post.  With 20 minutes to go there were changes for each side as, first, Moura replaced Bergwijn for Spurs, then Sissoko made way for Cleverley for the visitors with the former Spurs man leaving to applause from all sides of the ground, which was nice to see.  A poor clearance from Bachmann put the Hornets in some danger, but he redeemed himself by pushing Moura’s shot wide.  Then a low free kick from Højbjerg took a deflection but Bachmann made the save.  The home side threatened again with a run and cross from Moura, Kane was at the back post, but Troost-Ekong got a touch to divert the ball and prevent the shot.  From the resultant corner, Kane shot goalwards, but Bachmann was equal to it.  Sarr’s progress was again stopped by a foul, this time by Skipp, who took the yellow card for the team.  There was a late change for the home side, seemingly to waste some time, as Gil replaced Son.  The last action of note was a Ngakia cross that reached Hernández who tried, and failed, to meet it with an overhead kick.

So, we finished on the losing side, but there was no shame in the defeat.  Spurs are currently top of the Premier League, but they did not outclass us and resorted to time wasting for the whole of the second half.  The Hornets defended well, and the midfield was much more impressive than at Brighton.  Unfortunately, as so often at this level, we lost to a moment of quality (allied with a misjudgement from Bachmann), and we didn’t make the most of the chances that we had.  But there were a lot of positives to take from the game and I am impressed with our squad.  One lovely touch at the end of the game was the ovation that the Spurs fans gave Rose and Sissoko, the latter was the last to leave the field as he enjoyed the applause from all sides of the ground.

Challenging at a set piece

We headed back to the Brewery Tap at the end of the game and I found myself back there at the front of the queue before the crowds arrived, so was sending messengers back to gather the orders from the stragglers.  We had a lovely post-match catch-up and eventually headed home.

As I sat down to relax on arrival home, I realised that as I only ever drink beer at football so, over lockdown, I have completely lost my tolerance for it and found myself in desperate need of a nap.  

Despite the defeat, it was a lovely day catching up with so many wonderful people that I have been so lucky to get to know through supporting Watford.  Pleasingly, in coming weeks I will have the opportunity to catch up with so many others (certain Norfolk, Yorkshire and Happy Valley ‘Orns), so I expect to continue with the smiles and hugs.  I only hope that the football is equally pleasurable.

A Win Against Palace is Always Enjoyable

Ngakia battling with Zaha

Back to Vicarage Road for an evening game and, given that there were no problems on the trains, I was in the West Herts fairly early doors.  But, sadly, there was no sign of anyone else, so I bought my pint and found a table to read my book.  I also picked up my membership card, which I had applied for as a renewal, ignoring the last year, and was rather pleased to see that the plain cards had been replaced with a lovely design incorporating the Hart.  I was Franny-no-mates no more when Pete arrived, complaining about the traffic.  My family appeared just as I was thinking about leaving for the ground.

On this occasion, there were no queues at the Rookery turnstiles and my ticket worked almost immediately, so I was in the ground at a decent time.  I bought a programme from my usual vendor and had the right change available.  Silly things that made this seem like old times.  I went to get a pie, but they were running low with only the veggie balti available.  I have to say that it was very tasty indeed and is recommended.

Team news was that there were seven changes from Saturday with Rose (for the second time) and Fletcher making their debuts.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Rose, Sierralta, Troost-Ekong, Ngakia; Sema, Etebo, Louza; King, Fletcher, Hernández.  It was an impressively strong team and the Palace side looked equally strong, so this would be a good test.

Sierralta showing the way

The first chance of the game didn’t come until the 15th minute when Mateta tried a shot from an acute angle, but Foster was down to make the save.  The visitors threatened again with a cross to the back post where Mateta was lurking, but Troost-Ekong got to the ball first, heading off the line and over the bar for a corner.  The first move of note from the Hornets came as Hernández played the ball back to Ngakia whose cross was easily caught by Butland.  Then a cross from Fletcher was cleared, but only as far as Louza whose shot was well over the target.  Mateta had another chance to break the deadlock with a decent header that Foster tipped over the bar.  The visitors threatened again, from a corner, but Tomkins headed wide.  The first booking of the game went to Hernández who picked up a silly card after a spat with Ward.  The whistle went for half time with the game goalless.  It had not been a good half of football.  The visitors had slightly dominated, but neither keeper had been tested.

Gathering for a corner

Xisco made a change at the break bringing Dennis on for King.  The first chance of the second half came as a dangerous ball from Gallagher ran through the Watford box, but no Palace player was able to get on the end of it.  Then Watford won a free kick for a foul on Louza.  From Etebo’s delivery Troost-Ekong had a free header but headed the ball downwards and Butland was able to push it over the bar.  The Hornets had another chance from a Louza corner when the ball was knocked out to Fletcher, but the shot was well over the bar.  Watford launched a counter-attack and Dennis, who was being pulled back, did very well to find Cucho on the opposite flank, but the youngster took an early shot that was well over the target.  The next caution of the game went to Sierralta who was booked for dragging Schlupp down.  Xisco’s second change saw Ngakia replaced by Femenía.  Jeremy had played really well, giving Zaha no space at all, but it was lovely to see Kiko back in action.  At the same time, Viera made two changes bringing Benteke and McArthur on for Mateta and Gallagher.  Benteke had the next chance of the game after beating Sierralta, but Foster made a great save to deny him.  The visitors threatened again from a corner when the ball fell to Kouyate, but the shot was well over the bar.  The final change for the Hornets came as Cleverley replaced Sema, who had had a really poor game.  Palace also made their final sub, bringing Mitchell on for Tomkins.  Just as we thought we were heading for penalties, Rose intercepted a wayward pass before releasing Cucho who put in a gorgeous cross that was met by Fletcher who slid in to open the scoring in the 86th minute.  That goal celebration was really special.  Hugs with my sisters are especially cherished at this time.  The visitors tried to hit back as Ward crossed for Benteke, but his header was weak and easily caught by Foster.  The last action of the game was Rose being booked for time wasting at a throw-in.  He has definitely taken on the mantel of Holebas as he looks so angry all of the time and I swear that he was actually booked for offering the ref out.

Goal celebrations are always blurred!

The final whistle was blown and the Hornets were through to the next round.  It certainly wasn’t a great game of football, but a win is always good and a win over Palace is extra special.  We definitely looked stronger when Dennis came on, but there were some other good signs.  Ngakia kept Zaha very quiet, Rose continues to impress and it was great to see both Sierralta and Femenía back in action.

I headed back to the Junction and, due to the paucity of trains at that time of night, boarded the overground train to Euston.  I was joined by a lot of Palace fans who, for unknown reasons, were partying.  At this point noise-cancelling headphones are your friend.  Sadly, the train stopped at Headstone Lane and we were held there for some time.  Eventually, we set off again, but were told that the final stop would be Kilburn High Road.  Those who were paying attention piled off at Queens Park to continue their journey on the Bakerloo line, but the platform was very quiet, so the party boys will have had an interesting journey from Kilburn.  I connected with Richard at Queens Park, so had some lovely company for that leg of the journey.

It was past midnight by the time I got home but, even after a game that won’t last long in the memory, the time spent with friends and family and just watching a game at the Vic under lights meant that it was time well spent.