Tears, Hugs and a Wonderful Win at Wembley

The pre-match display at Wembley

My build-up to the semi-final had been less than ideal as I had woken up in the middle of the night after the Fulham game with a streaming cold and felt rotten for the rest of the week.  For this reason, it seemed sensible to have a quiet Saturday at home to prepare for the game.  Big mistake.  I don’t know how many times I checked the fixture lists to confirm that the game wasn’t actually on Saturday and I was missing it.  I felt jumpy all day and settling down to watch the other semi-final didn’t help.  Sadly, that game was a non-event.  City scored early and that was it.  It was a very dull game but provided confirmation that we would be playing for the chance to meet City in the final.  My viewing on Saturday evening had to be carefully chosen and I opted for “I Believe in Miracles” the documentary about Clough’s Forest and their run to becoming European Cup winners.  It was just brilliant and set me up nicely for the next day (after I watched the segment on the Premier League show featuring Gracia, Deulofeu and Luther).

So, finally, the day of the FA Cup semi-final dawned, and I was up bright and early and facing the dilemmas that come on the day of an important match.  What top should I wear under my replica shirt?  What mug should I use for my coffee?  I was tempted to use my Hornets mug, but eventually plumped for the Luther8 one.  It seemed only right.  On social media in the morning there was a lovely exchange between Nigel Gibbs and Tony Coton about going to the game and the fact that they had bought tickets to be in with the fans.  Legends, both of them.  It had also been heart-warming to see Woking FC wishing us luck.  It was where the journey began.

The 1881 Singing Section

After ensuring that my (regulation size) bag was packed with everything that I would need (don’t forget your tickets) and that my lucky seashell from Woking was still in my pocket, I left to catch the train to London.  On the first leg from Windsor to Slough I noticed a guy looking at me, but assumed it was my loud scarf that had attracted his attention, so didn’t take much notice.

On arrival at Paddington, I spotted a flash of yellow, turned and realised it was actually the old gold of Wolves, so walked on.  My journey to our meeting place took me past Marylebone, which was surrounded with Wolves fans.  The first Watford scarves that I spotted were outside the designated pre-match pub and worn by the friends that I was meeting.  We had arrived before opening time and quite a crowd was gathering, so we were thankful that Richard had booked a table for us.  As we waited, some Wolves fans appeared and were absolutely lovely.  None of us was confident of a win, but all thought that it would be a good game.

As our group gathered, it was an occasion to remember absent friends.  Dee and Toddy were both with us on our last visit to Wembley and their absence was keenly felt.  We hoped that the lads would do them proud.

Gomes and Deeney

After we had been fed and watered, we left in plenty of time to get to Wembley as I had one final ticket to drop off and, after an easy journey, we were outside Entrance P.  I immediately bumped into Adam to hand over the ticket and then saw that the rest of our party, who had come from the Watford direction, were all in the queue just in front of us.  At this point, all was right with my world.

As we took our seats, Farzana handed out the A4 bags that she had made from Watford FC curtains and we draped the Rocket Men and Golden Gomes banners in front of our seats.  She had also knit Gomes and Deeney dolls, but sadly they were too large to bring into the stadium so had been left at home.  As we waited for kick-off, it was lovely to see our Emma and Tim on the pitch representing Watford.

We then got to see the pre-match displays.  The one planned by Wolves had been advertised the previous day and it had looked as though it would be impressive.  When we got to our seats, we found yellow flags.  I was concerned that they were a little too much on the amber side and it wouldn’t be a match for what Wolves had planned.  Then the Watford crowd started waving the flags and the yellow, red and black display with the movement was absolutely fantastic and the energy meant that the Wolves display looked far too static.

There had been a lot of discussion about the possible team selection, especially the goalkeeping position.  When the starting XI was announced, we found that Gracia had kept faith with Gomes and had decide to bring Gray in for Deulofeu after his terrific performance against Fulham.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Gray, Deeney.

Gathering for a corner

The game started brightly for Wolves who had their first chance on 23 seconds with a shot from Otto that flew over the bar.  Watford won an early corner, but Ruddy was up to punch it clear, Pereyra picked up the ball and put in a cross, but Ruddy made the catch.  Wolves then won a free kick in a dangerous position after Hughes fouled Otto.  Moutinho stepped up to take it and it landed on the roof of the net, much to my relief.  The first booking of the game went to Saïss for a foul on Pereyra.  Wolves threatened again as a cross from Otto was touched on by Jota, but they couldn’t get a shot away.  Neves was the next to go into the referee’s book, again for a foul on Pereyra.  Holebas took the free kick, but Hughes met it with a dreadful mishit shot that sent the ball ballooning away.  Some nice passing between Gray and Pereyra led to the ball reaching Deeney on the edge of the area, but his shot was high and wide of the target.  Watford should have taken the lead on the half hour as Deeney flicked the ball over to Gray who, with only Ruddy to beat, got his foot under the ball and it looped over the bar when it looked easier to score.  That miss looked all the more costly as Wolves took the lead soon after.  A shot from distance from Dendoncker was tipped over by Gomes.  The resulting corner was played short to Jota who crossed for Doherty to head past Gomes.  Wolves had their tails up now and threatened again as Boly found Jota who advanced and, thankfully, shot just wide.  Watford then had a corner which they also took short, but Femenía’s cross was a comfortable catch for Ruddy.  Gray had a chance to grab an equaliser just before half time, but this time Coady made the block when Gray looked sure to score.  So we reached half time a goal down, feeling rather hard done by after what had been an even half of football.

Heurelho Gomes at Wembley

Luther was the Watford representative at half time.  I still look back with sadness at seeing him walk around the pitch before the 1984 Cup Final, which came at the end of his gap year.  We passed our time in the stands enjoying half-time samosas to keep our strength up for the rest of the game.

Wolves nearly had a great start to the second half as Saïss played a ball over to Jiménez, who beat the defence, but not Gomes who was down to make the block.  Watford created an opening as Femenía crossed for Doucouré, but the Frenchman couldn’t make a firm connection, so his header looped wide.  Jota then beat Cathcart (I know!!!) before crossing for Jiménez, but the shot was easy for Gomes.  Deeney then got the ball just outside the box and played a low cross, but it was too heavy and flew past Gray and wide of the target.  The first booking for the Hornets went to Cathcart for a foul on Jota just outside the box.  Neves took the free kick which flew well wide of the far post.  Watford then had a free kick in a dangerous position, Pereyra’s delivery reached Deeney who headed just wide.  Watford had another decent chance to equalise as Pereyra played a through ball to Gray, but the shot was poor and over the bar.

Pereyra takes a free kick

Holebas received his booking of the afternoon for stopping a break by Jota.  From the free kick, Jiménez took the ball down and poked it past Gomes to put Wolves two goals ahead.  So frustrating to concede again after a really good spell for the Hornets.  There was still half an hour to go, but it wasn’t looking good for the Hornets.  We hadn’t taken our chances and it looked as though we would be punished for it.  Gracia made his first substitution bringing Deulofeu on for Hughes.  Soon after, while waiting for a throw-in, there was an announcement that a VAR check was underway for a red card.  Nobody had any idea what this related to until my brother-in-law, who listens to the commentary during the game, said that it was due to Deulofeu putting his head into Moutinho’s face.  It had looked rather innocuous from where we were sitting and, thankfully, the decision was not to show a card.  There was another identical announcement soon after, I have no idea whether it was related to the same incident, but it was extremely irritating.  Watford threatened again when Gray got on the end of a cross from Femenía, but again it was headed over the bar.  There were then a number of half chances for the Hornets.  Deulofeu put in a cross which Ruddy gathered under challenge from Doucouré.  Holebas crossed again for Doucouré, but his shot was blocked.  It had been a good spell, but we just didn’t look like we would get the breakthrough.

Deulofeu goes to celebrate with Deeney after the penalty

Then a throw-in from Holebas was knocked back to Deulofeu, it didn’t look particularly dangerous for the opposition until Gerry nonchalantly lifted the ball into the top far corner.  It was a gorgeous goal out of nothing and suddenly it was game on with 10 minutes remaining.  Watford’s next chance came from a corner, the delivery from Holebas was good, but it was headed behind for another corner.  This one was flicked on by Deeney to Holebas, but his shot was blocked.  Wolves made their first substitution as Bennett replaced Neves.  Watford threatened again with a great cross from Kiko, but Ruddy just got to it.  Then the ball fell to Holebas in a great position, but he blasted it over the bar.  It wasn’t going to be our day.  As Wolves made a late substitution, replacing Jota with Cavaleiro, I prepared myself for defeat.  But, when the four minutes of added time was announced, I joined with my fellow Watford fans in roaring our encouragement to the team.  Then, just as the four minutes were almost up, Deeney got the ball in the box and fell under a challenge from Dendoncker.  Referee Oliver continued his habit of awarding late, dramatic penalties, but this one had to wait for the VAR review.  I was beside myself at this point.  After what seemed like an age, VAR confirmed the referee’s decision.  Luckily, I was able to take a seat to watch it, as my legs were jelly.  Troy’s weren’t, he stepped up and the ball hit the net in front of us and the crowd went properly wild.  Screams and hugs and tears greeting the goal we thought would never come.  The game restarted, but the whistle soon went for the end of normal time and we had earned ourselves another 30 minutes.

Holebas prepares for a corner

I have to say that we thoroughly deserved that.  A draw seemed like a fair result, and surely the Hornets would have the momentum going into extra time.  However, it was the Wolves side who had the upper hand in the early exchanges and the first goal opportunity came from a decent shot from Otto that Gomes managed to tip over.  There was some bad news for Watford as Holebas went down injured.  He tried to carry on, but eventually limped off to be replaced by Masina.  I was concerned at this point as Holebas had been terrific.  There was another booking for the Hornets as Capoue was cautioned for a foul on Dendoncker.  Santo made another substitution as Traore came on for Moutinho.  Then, in the last minute of the first period of extra time, Watford broke forward, Gray released Deulofeu who beat a defender before shooting into the far corner past Ruddy to send the Watford fans wild again.  Wolves tried to hit back immediately, but their break was foiled by a great tackle from Mariappa.  The resultant corner was easily gathered by Gomes.   There was a substitution for each side as Vinagre replaced Otto for Wolves and Femenía made way for Janmaat for the Hornets.  Wolves had a chance to level the game but the header from Jiménez flew wide of the near post.  Then the goal hero, Deulofeu, picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Sema.  Watford tried to consolidate their lead as Deeney got into the box and tried to lay the ball off to Doucouré, but the pass was intercepted.  Then Traore tried a shot from a tight angle, but it was an easy catch for Gomes.  Wolves had one last chance to take the game to penalties, and it was a great one, as Cavaleiro beat Mariappa and rounded Gomes, but Heurelho did enough to put the Wolves man off and he lost control of the ball allowing Mariappa to clear the danger.  The whistle went to euphoria mixed with disbelief in the Watford end.  There was a lot of tearful hugging among our group.  I couldn’t quite believe what I had seen.  Amelia was the clearest thinking as she commented that maybe they should rethink the Man of the Match award (that had been given to Jiménez some time before the end of normal time).

The family at the semi-final

After the game, there were rapturous celebrations both on and off the pitch.  We stayed in the stand to cheers the lads on and witness their joy.  It was lovely to see that this meant as much to the players as it did to us.  The cheers of the fans who had remained in their seats were finally rewarded as the players came together to rush towards the crowd behind the goal.  It was just joyous.  We seemed to be there for an age, but it still took us a long time to leave the ground as we kept bumping into friends for more hugs and expressions of disbelief.

A number of us headed back to central London for a celebratory beverage and to raise a glass to Dee and Toddy who would have loved the day.  There was nothing but pride in the team and what they had achieved against a very good Wolves side.  The Wolves fans that we had met before the game had returned to the pub and, as they left, wished us well.

I stayed rather longer in the pub than was sensible, so missed the last train from Slough to Windsor.  As the taxi dropped me off at the end of my road, I heard a voice.  “Excuse me.  Were you at Wembley today?  Is that your car with the Watford stuff in the back?”  It was the guy that I had seen on the train this morning.  Turns out I am not the only Hornet in my small street in Windsor.  Who knew?

Golden Gomes

A day later and I have still not quite come to terms with what I witnessed yesterday.  To come back from two goals down against a team like Wolves shows the tremendous spirit in this team.  They seem to be a group of players who love each other and the manager and that love has transmitted to the fans.  This has been the best season that I can remember for decades and it will end with an FA Cup final at Wembley.  As someone who has supported an unfashionable team for 40 years, I find it amazing that in that time I have been to six FA Cup semi-finals.  On 18th May, I will attend my second FA Cup final and will be accompanied by a large group of family and friends.  I have met so many lovely people while following the Hornets and it is really special to share these great times with them.

When Watford lost the Play-off final in 2013, my niece Amelia was in tears and I was devastated.  Yesterday she was in tears again, but they were tears of joy and it made the day all the more special.  Her Mum and I were at Villa Park for the semi-final against Plymouth and at Wembley for the final against Everton.  Now we will all be at Wembley for this year’s final and we can dare to dream.  Whatever the outcome, this season will live long in the memory.

Ole, Andre

Cathcart and Capoue

Having had to work on a planned day off last week, I decided to recoup some of that time by leaving early for the game.  On checking into the hotel in Watford, the manager commented on my scarf, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was a match in town that evening.  The bar man, a fellow Hornet, joined in the conversation and said that he was sacrificing this game in order to be able to go to the semi-final.  It seemed like the right choice to me.  We had a chat about our prospects at Wembley and then I headed to the West Herts.  I arrived to see that Don’s car wasn’t in its usual place, which caused me a momentary panic, until I saw him sitting in his usual place inside.  Some interloper was in his space when he arrived.  Poor show indeed.  I settled down with a pint and to anticipate the evening ahead.  This was an odd prospect as, playing struggling Fulham, it should have been a game to enjoy, but every moment would be analysed with Sunday in mind.

On the walk along Vicarage Road, we found ourselves among Fulham fans who, given that a defeat would relegate them, were chanting, “The Whites are going down … and now you’re gonna believe us.”

Pre-match speculation was that certain key players would be rested, possibly to be brought on during the game if needed.  Needless to say, Gracia did the unexpected with the four changes from Saturday being the entire back four reverting to what most would consider to be our first choice.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenia, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Doucouré, Capoue, Hughes, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.  I had everything crossed that there would be no injuries.

Celebrating Doucoure’s goal

As it is the 25th anniversary of the formation of Kick it Out, tonight was Watford’s game dedicated to the cause and the “No room for racism” message was all over the hoardings.  Sadly, recent events show that this message is needed now more than ever.

The first chance of the game went to the visitors as Mitrović got his head to a cross and diverted it wide of the target.  At this point, the Fulham fans were in very good voice indeed.  The first chance for the Hornets came on 15 minutes as Pereyra tricked his way into the box, but his shot was blocked.  The visitors had a great chance to take the lead as Babel played a lovely ball over to Sessegnon in the box, but the Fulham youngster was unable to connect.  Some rushed play from the Hornets allowed the ball to reach Mitrović whose shot was easily gathered by Foster.  Watford then had a great chance to break the deadlock as Femenía broke forward before crossing for Deeney but the header was wide of the near post.  The Hornets took a somewhat undeserved lead on 23 minutes as Doucouré picked up the ball, ran to the edge of the box and hit a sweet strike into the near corner of the Fulham net.

Holebas prepares for a corner

The next action of note came 10 minutes later and was an equaliser for the visitors as Sessegnon found Babel who rounded the onrushing Foster to score.  It was frustrating, but no more than the visitors deserved.  The Fulham faithful greeted the goal with “We are staying up” followed by “We’ve f*cking scored”.  Fair play to them.  This was greeted with a round of applause from the Rookery, as we’ve all been there.  The visitors threatened again as a bit of head tennis in the Watford box led to the ball falling to Babel whose shot was blocked.  Sessegnon had a great chance to grab the lead after a break, but his shot was easy for Foster.  The visitors looked sure to take the lead after Deulofeu overplayed and gave the ball away allowing them to break but, when he looked sure to score, Mitrović totally mishit his shot which flew high and well wide of the near post.  The first booking of the game came late in the half as Mariappa was booked for a foul on Mitrović.  The half time whistle was greeted with boos from some Watford supporters.  Granted it had been a poor half of football from the Hornets, but all of our minds were on the semi-final on Sunday, so it was a ridiculous reaction.

The half time guest was Marco Cassetti, who immediately apologised for giving away the penalty in the play-off final against Palace.  There was another penalty that he didn’t need to apologise for, given what it led to.  Knockaert’s dive was shown from multiple angles before we got to enjoy the terrific goal from the play-off semi-final.  He said what a great memory that was and how it makes him smile.  He seemed a bit baffled when the conversation turned to the subject of his beard.  It was lovely to see him back to hear how much he enjoyed his time with us.

Gracia made a double substitution at the break bringing Janmaat and Gray on for Pereyra and Deulofeu.

Will Hughes has his eyes on Babel

Janmaat’s first contribution was to earn a booking for a foul on Cairney.  Watford had an early chance to regain the lead when a cross from Holebas was headed on towards his own goal by Chambers and Rico had to stretch to tip it over and save his teammate’s blushes.  Holebas caused more problems for the Fulham defence, winning a free kick that he took himself which had to be punched clear by Rico.  A lovely exchange of passes between Janmaat and Gray ended with the Dutchman bearing down on goal, but Rico came out to smother the ball and was injured in the process.  Babel came to complain to the referee, trying to get Janmaat booked, which seemed harsh as he had every right to go for the ball.  Doucouré had a chance to grab a second goal, but took too long to take the shot and it was blocked.  Gray was the next Watford player to try his luck, but his shot from distance deflected wide.  My neighbour in the Rookery had been nervously bemoaning the fact that the players were acting as though they had already won the game.  His nerves were eased somewhat when a corner was headed clear to Hughes who belted a volley past Rico from outside the box.  It was a terrific goal and very welcome.  Fulham had a half chance to break back as an awkward header from Mitrović had to be tipped over the bar by Foster.

Celebrating Deeney’s strike

On 69 minutes, Watford made the scoreline a bit more comfortable as Gray broke forward before cutting the ball back for Deeney to score Watford’s third of the evening.  It may have been Deeney who applied the finishing touch, but the crowd was chanting “Olé, Andre.”  Harry the Hornet’s goal celebration was a little too enthusiastic and led to some repairs being needed for the corner flag.  At this point, the visitors made their first substitution replacing Ream with Seri.  Watford could have increased their lead as Doucouré found Holebas whose shot was pushed around the post by the keeper.  I swear that, as he walked in front of the Rookery to take the corner, Jose was smiling.  With 15 minutes remaining, Gray turned provider again, this time for Femenía, who scored Watford’s fourth and surely confirmed Fulham’s relegation.  Despite the comfortable lead, the home side continued to attack and Hughes got into a great position, but chose to tee up Gray whose shot was deflected wide.  At this point, Gracia made his final substitution bringing Quina on for Capoue.  Needless to say, every time the youngster got the ball there were shouts for him to shoot.  The visitors had a chance to pull a goal back as Mitrović found Seri whose close range shot was stopped by a brilliant save from Foster.  There was a second substitution for the visitors as Babel made way for Schürrle.  Watford threatened again as a lovely cross from Janmaat was met by the head of Doucouré, but Rico was equal to the effort.  Scott Parker made a final change with McDonald coming on for Cairney.   Gray had another chance to add a goal to his assists, but the keeper was down to make the save.  As the clock reached 90 minutes, Holebas earned his inevitable booking.  I am not sure whether it was for the foul on Sessegnon or his reaction to being penalised, but he risked further censure by refusing to speak to the referee.  Eventually Deeney had to take him over and make the peace.

A group hug among the goal scorers

The full time whistle went to terrific celebrations from the Watford faithful.  It was a testament to his contribution after coming on that Gray was named the man of the Match, a decision that went down well with the home crowd.  At the other end of the ground, a banner announcing “Fulham Relegation Party” was being waved.  I must admit to some regret at our relegating Fulham as it is a club that I like and I love going to Craven Cottage, but the win was needed both to keep up our fight for seventh place and to give us some momentum before the FA Cup semi-final on Sunday.

It was an odd game.  After a poor performance in the first half that seemed to result from the players not wanting to get hurt, they went for it in the second half and we were royally entertained.  Gray was everywhere, with the two assists and plenty of chances to score himself.  It was a very positive performance indeed.  At the same time Wolves were beating Man Utd, so also going in to the weekend on a positive note.  Sunday will be a very interesting game.  Two evenly matched teams who both play decent football.  It should be entertaining, whatever the result.  But I am really hoping that it is a repeat of our performance at Molineux, which was superb.  I am also hoping to get at least a few hours sleep between now and the game, but that is not guaranteed.

We have to be loud and proud on Sunday.  This is our best chance of reaching a cup final since 1984 and I would love my youngest sister and nieces to experience that as Rose and I did all those years ago.  These are the days that we dream about.  They should be savoured and I, for one, with endeavour to enjoy every minute.

Defeat Despite Domination at Old Trafford

Deeney and Smalling challenge for the ball

I took an early train to Manchester on which I was delighted to meet up with Dave Messenger, Watford’s Supporter Liaison Officer, who then accompanied me to our designated pre-match pub (which had also been his intended meeting point).  On arrival at the pub, I realised that the small bag containing my purse that I had when I left London was no longer on my person.  Having had no joy from the customer service hotline, which gave me the number for a closed lost property office, I headed back to Piccadilly.  I explained my problem to a lovely guy called Sean in the ticket office, who identified the train manager (Anthony) on the train which had just left to return to London.  He gave him a call and Anthony went to my seat, found the bag and, as he wouldn’t be back in Manchester until late, promised to leave it at Lost Property in London for me to pick up on my return.

Mightily relieved, I headed back to the pub just in time to see the team, who were at the hotel opposite, starting to board the coach for the journey to Old Trafford.  I entered the pub to find all the usual suspects in place, which was very convenient as I had semi-final tickets to hand out (thankfully these were in the bag that I had retained).  I have to say that it was a relief to pass them on, so that the responsibility was no longer mine.

Ben Foster takes a free kick

We gave ourselves plenty of time to get to the ground and negotiate the multiple layers of security that they have at Old Trafford.  As they now only allow you to take a very small bag into the stadium, I filled my pockets with the stuff I needed for the game (match ticket, glasses, phone, camera, notebook) and left the rest at the bag drop where they charged me £5 for the privilege.  I know that they want to encourage people not to take bags to the game, but nobody is going to travel for a couple of hours without provisions for the journey and I find it impossible to travel light anyway.  On arrival at the turnstiles, there was another search before we finally entered.  Once inside the ground, I could hear the tannoy announcer welcoming us to the “Theatre of Dreams”.  My description was much less polite.  Old Trafford really is the most unpleasant ground to visit in the Premier League.

Prior to the match, there had been speculation that Gracia would rest players in preparation for the semi-final next week.  There was another train of thought that said that the players had been training for two weeks, so needed game time.  As it turned out, there were five changes from the Palace game with wholesale changes in defence as Foster, Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos and Masina replaced Gomes, Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart and Holebas.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos, Masina; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.  United’s starting line-up featured Watford Academy graduate Ashley Young who, following some over-exuberant goal celebrations in front of Watford fans, is no longer greeted as an erstwhile hero.  The referee for the afternoon was Stuart Attwell.  A choice that was rather ironic as discussions with John Eustace regarding the “ghost goal” had been a notable feature at the Tales from the Vicarage event the previous Sunday.

Doucoure on the ball

The game started brightly for the Hornets with a decent chance in the sixth minute as Pereyra cut the ball back to Doucouré whose shot was just wide of the near post.  Deeney had the next chance with a shot from distance that was high and wide of the target.  The first attack of note by the home side came on the counter as Pogba released Rashford who was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Kabasele.  The resulting corner was delivered deep to Smalling who headed wide.  Watford had a great chance to open the scoring as a cross from Janmaat was headed goalwards by Deeney, de Gea managed to make the save but injured himself in the process.  At this point the first chant of “Attwell, give us a goal” was heard.  The first booking of the game went to Will Hughes for a foul on Pogba.  Watford had another great chance and Pereyra really should have done better when he received a headed pass from Deulofeu, but his shot was soft and straight at the keeper.  Deulofeu was the next to test de Gea with a shot through legs but, again, it was a fairly simple save for the keeper.  On a rare foray into the Watford box, Martial took a tumble looking for a penalty, but the referee was having none of it and waved play on.  United took the lead against the run of play as Shaw released Rashford, Foster came out to try to stop the shot, but the United youngster found the net.  At this point, if there had been any leg room and I hadn’t been in the second to back row of a stand in which everyone was on their feet, I would have slumped into my seat.  It was so frustrating to be a goal down following United’s first real chance of the game.  Ironically, the home side had a great chance to increase their lead almost immediately as a corner was cleared only as far as Martial but his shot was stopped by a brilliant reaction save by Foster.  The last chance of the half fell to the Hornets as Deulofeu took a dangerous-looking free kick, but Smalling was able to get a head to it and avert the danger.

Deulofeu prepares for a corner

So we reached half time a goal down in a half that had been completely dominated by the Hornets.  We were trailing to a goal scored by the home side on a counter attack.  But, if you don’t take your chances ….

The home side came out for the second half some time before the visitors, but it was the Hornets who had the first shot of the half, a curler from Deulofeu that was saved fairly comfortably by de Gea.  Janmaat was the next to try his luck, but his shot from the edge of the box was over the target.  Watford had a great chance to grab an equaliser when Deulofeu cut the ball back to Pereyra whose shot needed an excellent save from de Gea to push it around the post.  Gracia made his first change after 57 minutes replacing Janmaat with Femenía.  Watford had another decent chance as Hughes hit a lovely curling shot, but it was just wide of the target.  The Hornets threatened again as a corner cleared to Femenía who was well outside the box when he took the shot, but de Gea managed to get in the way to make the block.  There was a double substitution for the home side as Herrera and Mata made way for Lingard and Pereira.

Pereyra and Hughes

Watford were playing some gorgeous football and deserved more from a lovely passing move that finished with a chip from Deeney that de Gea saved.  Watford won a free kick, which was cleared to Capoue whose volley was way over the target.  Watford had been dominant again in the second half, so it was cruel that the first meaningful attack of the second half from the home side resulted in their second goal as Lingard crossed for Martial, his first shot was blocked by Foster but he bundled the rebound in.  To add insult to injury, we were in front of an executive box so were able to watch a reply which clearly showed Martial in an offside position.  Each side made a further substitution with Gray replacing Deulofeu for the Hornets and Rojo on for Martial for the home side.  United had a chance to further increase their lead but Lingard’s shot was straight at Foster.  Pereyra then had a great chance to pull one back when he received a cross in an acre of space, but he waited too long to take the shot so was closed down and could only win a corner.  Gracia made his last substitution bringing Success on for Hughes, who had had a superb game.  There was a second booking for the Hornets as Masina was cautioned for bundling Rashford over as he attempted a break.  As the clock reached 90 minutes, Watford pulled a goal back as Doucouré played a one-two with Success before coolly finishing past de Gea.  The travelling Hornets celebrated mightily, the players just ran back to the centre circle to get on with the game.  Oddly, given the goal, substitutions and various stoppages for injuries/cramp, there was only 3 minutes of time added on.  Watford had a great chance to grab an equaliser when Capoue won a free kick just outside the box.  Pereyra took the free kick and I was just waiting for a shot when a United player collapsed in the box and the whistle went to award a free kick to the home side.  That was the last action of the game, so the Hornets ended up on the losing side.

Capoue takes a free kick

Despite their disappointment at the defeat, the travelling Hornets roared their appreciation of the team’s performance with the songs reaching a crescendo as Gracia came over to applaud the crowd.  It had been a tremendous performance by the Watford lads.  It isn’t often that you play away against one of the top six and find the home team playing a defensive game hoping to score on the break.  The Watford midfield ran the game and, in a season in which Capoue and Doucouré have excelled on a weekly basis, it was great to see Hughes put in a superb performance.

On the tram back to the station, we got talking to some locals who acknowledged that we had been the better team.  Unsurprisingly, the train back to London was packed, but I arrived early enough to bump into some fellow regulars, so I had delightful company on the journey home.  We were joined by a Norwegian Manchester United fan, who was lovely and chatted away about his team.  He had taken his significant other to her first game and said that she’d enjoyed it.  My suggestion that, given the performances of the two teams, she would likely opt for Watford fell on deaf ears.

Gathering for a corner

On return to Euston I went in search of my mislaid purse.  The guy at Lost Property claimed no knowledge of the item, so I went to the ticket office where I met Petro and Sana, who went above and beyond the call of duty, finding the name and contact details for the train manager who had promised to drop off my bag.  They called him and were told that it was in lost property so Petro accompanied me to convey what he had been told to the guardian of the missing loot, who produced a book containing details of all items that had been left with them and I spotted the entry that corresponded to my purse.  He retrieved it and I was able to return home with my purse intact and a great respect for the customer service delivered by the Virgin Trains ticket office staff.

Back to the football and this had been a wonderful performance by the Watford boys.  We now face a week with a game against Fulham that could allow us to achieve our highest points total in the Premier League since it was created and a game on Sunday in which we could advance to only our second FA Cup final.  If we play as we did on Saturday, I believe we should be able to achieve both of those aims.  I just need to work out how to keep myself functioning in the day job for the next week.

 

 

Heurelho Helps Us to Wembley

The GT Stand before the game

I had to travel to the US for work again this week.  Leaving after the City game and returning on Thursday morning, meant I didn’t have too much time to prepare for this match.  The crucial thing was not forgetting the paper ticket that had been sent out.  This was taken with me to the US as I was scared that jet-leg would lead to me leaving it in a drawer.

Due to the early kick-off, I decided to stay in London overnight on Friday.  On waking, and before I had really had time to think about my plans for the day, the nerves had already kicked in.  I caught the 9:24 from Euston to Watford and settled down with a coffee while noting that others on the train had already started on the beer.  Contemplating which podcast should accompany me, I decided to have another listen to the previous week’s From the Rookery End.  If I needed any more inspiration for the day, the rallying cry from the Parkin men, Mike and Arlo, certainly did the job.  As I passed Wembley on the train, I stared at the arch.  The new stadium hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for us, but that has to change one of these days and I wanted the chance to return (although I wish it wasn’t for a semi-final, those should be at Villa Park).  When the train emptied at the Junction, as it often does, it made a nice change to see that those disembarking were fans of football rather than Harry Potter.

Heurelho Gomes

I reached the West Herts a few minutes before the doors were due to open at 10 and there was already quite a crowd waiting.  When the doors opened, we took up position at ‘our’ table and were soon enjoying a pint and a bacon roll.  Breakfast of Champions.

Just to spite us, the clock there was running 30 minutes slow, but we noticed early enough to ensure that we left in plenty of time.  As we walked along Vicarage Road among the crowds, the anticipation built.  I noted that Wolfie had already sold out of programmes and hoped that my usual lady still had some left when I entered the ground (she did).  As we turned the corner into Occupation Road, I glanced over at the statue and knew that I had to greet GT.  I went over and took his hand, knowing that today would be a day he would have savoured.

The 1881 had put incredible efforts into making sure that there would be a tremendous atmosphere.  When we took our seats, the ground was already full of people waving flags.  The big screen was showing footage of earlier quarter-finals.  I enjoyed watching John Barnes lobbing Tony Coton in 1984, but it is the Arsenal game in 1987 that always comes to mind.  I loved that day out at Highbury.

Jose Holebas on the ball

The Palace fans had been given their required allocation, no more, no less.  Due to problems with segregation in the Vicarage Road end, this meant that the Palace fans were housed in two blocks in the stand with a netting area between them and a banner wishing the Hindu community Happy Holi India for their festival on Thursday this week.  It was an odd sight and one that had infuriated the visiting fans.

Team news was that Gracia had chosen what most would consider to be his strongest team with the exception of Gomes coming in for Foster for what would probably be his last game at Vicarage Road.  What a game to go out on.  It was interesting that Femenía had been chosen in place of Janmaat, who had done well recently.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.  The major news for Palace was that Zaha would miss the game through injury.  While he is undoubtedly a very talented player, he often seems to go missing.  So I wasn’t sure that his absence would have a major effect on the game, although it may have changed Harry Hornet’s game plan.  Of course, the lovely Ray Lew was back at Vicarage Road in the opposition dug out.  He managed us through times of penury, but still took us to an FA Cup semi-final.  He will always be a legend to me for that.

As the teams came out, the flags waved in the home stands, there were streamers and the Legends banner was unfurled from the Upper GT stand, meaning that Nigel Gibbs found himself sitting under his picture.  That had to be a good omen.

Doucoure and Pereyra

My niece, Maddie, had enjoyed the Leicester game so much that she made a late decision to come to this one.  Her seat was in a part of the Rookery away from the rest of us, but she hung around just in case one of the seats in our section remained unoccupied.  That didn’t happen, but the crowd in the Rookery forgot to sit down, so the extra person in our row was not apparent and we were able to enjoy the match together.

The game kicked off and the Rookery were in good voice singing “Is that all you take away” to the Palace fans, before launching into “Heurelho Gomes baby” for our veteran keeper.  He was in action early in the game as the first goal chance fell to the visitors as Townsend played the ball back to Milivojevic whose shot was saved by Gomes, although it was off target anyway.  Watford’s first action of note came from a free kick, Holebas floated it into the box where McArthur took Hughes down, but the referee. Kevin Friend, waved away our appeals for a penalty.  After a quarter of an hour, there was a break in play as the players burst a number of red and blue balloons that were invading the pitch in the corner in front of the Family Stand.  Having found a pitchfork somewhere, Harry joined in with some enthusiasm.

Capoue giving thanks for his goal

Watford’s first chance of the game came as Deulofeu burst into the box and shot from a narrow angle, but the Palace keeper, Guaita, stood tall and blocked the shot.  Palace won a free kick in a dangerous position, but Gomes rose to make a comfortable catch.  Watford then had a spell when they were in and around the Palace box, but couldn’t fashion a shot on target.  Instead we won a series of corners and, as each one was repelled, I hoped that we wouldn’t regret missing those chances.  Then, from yet another corner, the ball fell to Capoue and he knocked it into the net to send us all crazy.  Just what we needed to settle the nerves a bit.  The Hornets could have had a second as Deulofeu advanced into the box and hit a gorgeous shot but Guaita did brilliantly to get a hand to it and keep it out.  The first booking of the game went to Milivojevic for a foul on Hughes.  Watford had another great chance to increase their lead as Deulofeu hit a free kick over the wall, but Guaita was down to make the save.  Palace made a rare foray into the Watford half as Townsend broke forward, but was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Holebas who was injured in the process.  Thankfully, he was able to continue after treatment.  Palace had a chance to equalise just before half time as Wan-Bissaka chipped the ball to Meyer but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Gomes.  The visitors had one last attack in time added on but Deulofeu was back to make a superb tackle on McArthur and avert the danger.  An unexpected and very welcome showing in defence from young Gerry.

Holebas and Pereyra line up a free kick

So we went into half time in a deserved lead.  It had been a dominant performance from the Hornets, who were not giving their opponents any space to play.  We should really have been further ahead, but I was happy with what I had seen.

Half time and the first talking point was a hornet onesie that was being worn by a woman in the Rookery.  It was an interesting fashion choice.  Back to the official entertainment and the special guest was Tommy Smith who was asked about his appearances in previous cup quarter finals.   His goal from the game against Burnley was shown, I couldn’t help remembering that Ray Lew then left him out for the semi-final after Chopra’s heroics in another game against Burnley.  Tommy had also played in the game against Plymouth in 2007 (as had Mariappa).  I had forgotten that game, until he mentioned it.  It was truly dire.

 

A tremendous showing by Femenia

Watford had to make a substitution at the break as Holebas was unable to continue, so was replaced by Masina.  The Hornets had the first attack of the second half as a poor goal kick from Gomes was rescued and flicked on to Deulofeu who put in a decent cross, but nobody was on hand to connect with it.  Then a Palace corner was flicked goalwards by Meyer, but Gomes pulled off an excellent save to deny him.  Masina was booked after taking Meyer down soon after executing another robust challenge.  Townsend took the free kick and it was on target, but Gomes tipped it over the bar.  Batshuayi should have done better when he received a ball from Schlupp, but he knocked it wide of the near post.  He did much better soon after as Mariappa dwelled on the ball instead of clearing it, the Palace man nipped in to dispossess him and shoot across Gomes into the opposite corner to draw the game level.  It was a howler from Mariappa, who would have been devastated given his history at Palace.  At this point, the nerves set in with a vengeance again.  Surely Palace wouldn’t snatch this from us.  Watford had a chance to regain their lead as Deeney played the ball back to Deulofeu but his shot was straight at the keeper.  The Hornets had another great chance as Guaita punched a cross from Masina only as far as Pereyra, his shot was saved but Doucouré could only put the follow-up over the bar.

Deep in conversation after Gray’s goal

Gracia then made his first unforced substitution bringing Gray on for Hughes.  I dare not say it out loud, but my mind was screaming “super sub!”  A lovely exchange of passes deserved a better finish than a cross from Doucouré that was too heavy and went out for a goal kick.  The second goal for the Hornets was a thing of beauty as Pereyra dinked a ball over to Gray who finished past Guaita sending the Watford fans crazy again and also giving us the opportunity to see a Gomes celebration in front of the Rookery for what may well be the last time.  With 10 minutes remaining, I was hoping that we would hold on, but the visitors then won a free kick in a dangerous position.  I held my breath as Milivojevic stepped up to take it, my joyous shout of “into the wall” may have been stating the obvious but it indicated my profound relief.  Hodgson made a substitution at this point, replacing McArthur with Benteke.  Watford could have grabbed a third, but Deeney’s powerful shot was parried by Guaita and Wan-Bissaka managed to clear as Deulofeu closed in on the rebound.  The Hornets had another great chance as Cathcart met a corner with a header that was cleared off the line by Milivojevic.  Gracia made his final change bringing Cleverly on for Deulofeu who left the field to an ovation and some laughter as, when the referee went over to tell him to speed up his departure from the pitch, he innocently turned and shook his hand.  As the clock reached 90 minutes, the visitors had a chance to take the game into extra time when a corner reached Tomkins, who seemed to be taken by surprise and turned it wide of the near post.  Late into time added on and the visitors really should have been level as the ball fell to Wan-Bissaka and we watched despairingly as his shot appeared to be heading for the opposite corner before rolling wide.  I noted something in my notebook at this point, but my hand was shaking so much that it is totally illegible.  When the whistle went to confirm our place in the semi-final, Vicarage Road erupted with joy.

Harry Hornet in his Superman cape

I was distracted at the sight of Harry Hornet running on wearing a Superman style cape, so missed the moment when Gracia warmly embraced Gomes.  The keeper was then hugged by Deeney and it was apparent that he was in tears.  The crowd were cheering him on and he was very emotional in his response.  It was lovely to see the mutual respect between the player and the crowd.  Finally, as he always used to, he brought his sons on to the pitch to enjoy the applause with him.  While this was going on, the tannoy had Que Sera Sera playing and the Watford crowd were singing along with gusto.  It was all fabulous.

Normally we stay to applaud the last player off the pitch, so the stands are empty by the time we leave (everyone is in Occupation Road).  It is a mark of how much this win meant that when the pitch emptied the stand was still full and, for the first time in years, we had to wait to leave our row.

As we reached the Hornet shop we noticed that they already had t-shirts commemorating the semi-final in the window.  Being a sucker for that sort of thing, we all went in and bought the shirts.  Then came out and had a family photo with GT.

A family photo with GT

When I finally got back to the West Herts, my group were happily sitting outside celebrating the victory.  It is hard to analyse a game when the result is all that counts, but it had been a great performance from the Hornets and the win was well deserved.  Deeney may not have scored, but he had put in a great Captain’s performance which was noted by us all.  I have to say that I had almost forgotten how good Femenía is, he had a tremendous game and certainly justified his inclusion.  While enjoying our celebratory beers, I had a quick read of the BBC online match report and was a little taken aback to see a comment to the effect that the win mean that we had reached “only” our sixth semi-final.  Actually it is our seventh, but we are a small town club and to have reached seven semi-finals is actually a tremendous achievement.  I am still pinching myself.

When I finally decided to head for home, the walk through the town centre to the station was to the sound of Watford fans singing Que Sera Sera.  It was a lovely feeling.

The draw for the semi-final took place when I was in the car driving home this afternoon.  When Alan Green announced that Watford were playing Wolves, I screamed with relief.  They will not be easy opponents, they are a very good side.  But at least we go into the game knowing that it is winnable and that is all that you can ask at this stage.  Troy has been on the losing side in a previous semi-final at Wembley and he will certainly not want to repeat that experience.  It should be a great day out.

I am still buzzing after that win.  Over the past 40 years, I have many wonderful days following the Hornets, but also some very miserable ones.  We go week in, week out, sometimes travelling a long distance to see our team badly beaten, but days like this make it all worthwhile.  There is a tremendous spirit around the club at the moment, so I hope that we can sell out our allocation and roar the boys on to a cup final.  That would be a fitting end to what has been a wonderful season.

Controversy at City

Ben Foster takes a free kick

Despite the late kick-off, I left London at the same time as I would have for a 3pm game.  I went straight to the hotel to see if there was a possibility of an early check-in.  As I neared, I spotted a familiar face, so we both checked in and dropped our bags/toothbrush before heading to the pub.  When the details had come through of the proposed pre-match pub, I was slightly put off to find out that it was called the Castle Hotel.  On arrival it was clear that this was far from the hotel bar that I had been expecting, instead it was a proper old-fashioned pub with real ale and a back room that often hosts live music.  Over the next hour or so, our group gathered and occupied a couple of tables in the back room.  All managed to resist the temptation to bang out a tune on the piano that was available.  Just before we left, a couple of guys came in and occupied a table in the corner next to us having first shared the information that John Peel had once interviewed Ian Curtis at that very table.  A little snippet of information that gave the rather shabby looking back room an unlikely glamour.

Having had a couple of drinks there, we moved on to a Thai restaurant in China Town for a very tasty lunch before getting the tram to the stadium. On our last visit the journey to the ground took rather longer than expected due to a long wait for a tram, so on this occasion we gave ourselves plenty of time.  We didn’t want to miss an early goal again!

Miguel Britos back in the side

On the tram, I found myself sitting next to a City fan who, when I expressed my lack of confidence about the game, mentioned that they had a number of injuries.  That didn’t make me feel any better even though Gracia had announced that he now had a fully fit squad to choose from.  When the team news came through, we found that Javi had decided to make the most of that embarrassment of riches by making seven changes, including replacing 3 of the back 4 and leaving Deeney on the bench.  So our starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Britos, Kabasele, Masina; Femenía, Cleverley, Capoue, Doucouré, Success; Gray.  I understood the logic of making the changes, especially as we have a tricky FA Cup quarter-final next week, but at that point I suggested that we go back to the pub.

The first event of note in the game was a booking for Walker for a foul on Success.  This was to be a rare occasion in the game when a Watford player had possession.  City had their first attempt on goal soon after as David Silva headed a cross from Mahrez wide of the target.  The first attack for the visitors came as Janmaat played a through ball to Gray, but the ball was easily gathered by Ederson.  City threatened again with a shot from a narrow angle by David Silva that Foster was able to block.

Masina takes a throw-in

The Watford keeper was in action again soon after coming to punch a free kick from Gündogan clear.  The next chance for the home side came from a cross from Zinchenko, a slight deflection prevented it reaching Agüero and it went out for a corner.  The home side should have taken the lead after half an hour when a cross from Bernardo Silva reached Agüero who, with the goal at his mercy, headed just wide of the near post.  They also looked certain to score when Sterling broke into the box with only the keeper to beat, but Janmaat, who had been in pursuit, managed to catch up and frustrate him with a fantastic tackle.  There was a half chance for City as a cross reached David Silva whose header was an easy catch for Foster.  Into time added on at the end of the half, Foster came to claim a speculative shot from Agüero but was only able to put it out for a corner.  The delivery was met by the head of Success, whose clearance dropped to Mahrez, but the shot was just wide of the target.  So, we reached half time with the game goalless.  It had been all City, with the Hornets not mustering a shot on target.  But the defensive efforts of the visitors had been impressive and restricted the chances for the home side.

Deulofeu lines up a free kick

The second half started disastrously for the Hornets.  From the other end of the ground, it appeared that Watford had let in a really soft goal from Sterling, so it was a relief when the lineman’s flag was raised.  But, following protests from the City players, the referee had a very long conversation with the lino before indicating that the goal would stand.  It was a bizarre decision by all accounts and the Watford players were furious, but their protests fell on deaf ears.  I can’t help feeling that their anger at the injustice was a factor in their conceding a second goal a few minutes later, another simple finish for Sterling from a square ball from Mahrez.  A few Watford fans had seen enough at this point and left the stand.  Sterling got his hat trick on the hour mark as he latched on to a through ball from David Silva and chipped the ball over Foster.  This led to more departures including the family who were sitting in front of us.  In my opinion this was poor parenting.  Watching your team get thrashed is character building.  Guardiola clearly thought that Sterling’s work was done as he was replaced by Sané.  I had to laugh at that point, because if I didn’t I feared that I would cry.  Gracia also made a change bringing Deeney and Deulofeu on for Success and Femenía.  This turned out to be an inspired substitution as, with their first touches of the game, Deeney knocked Kompany out of the way to get on the end of a free-kick from Foster that he headed on to Deulofeu who sped upfield and finished past Ederson.  That cheered me up no end.

Masina takes a free kick under the watchful gaze of Cleverley and Janmaat

City tried to restore their three goal advantage, but the shot from Aguero was into Foster’s midriff.   The next to threaten was Bernardo Silva who latched on to a through ball from Mahrez, but Foster was equal to the shot.  Guardiola made his second substitution bringing Jesus on for Agüero.  Gracia’s final change saw Cathcart coming on in place of Britos.  City looked sure to get a fourth goal when Jesus rounded Foster, but Kabasele made a superb tackle to stop him.  The final substitution for the home side came at the start of the additional time as City wonder boy Foden replaced Mahrez.  But there was no further action of note, so the game ended with a two goal defeat for the Hornets, which was more than respectable.

Due to the late kick-off, the post match analysis was brief and occurred as we walked to a music venue near Oxford Road station in order to see a Lebanese band playing songs of protest against human rights issues in relation to women and LGBT folk.  The comments between the songs were so interesting that I was disappointed not to be able to understand the Arabic lyrics.  It was a fabulous end to a day on which the football wasn’t expected to give us much pleasure.

Like the majority of Watford fans, I don’t travel to places like City expecting anything out of the game, so the fact that the home side had the vast majority of the possession and Watford had only the single shot on target came as no surprise.  Unlike the trip to Liverpool, Watford were more effective in defence and, had the referee not interfered, the result may have been more favourable.  But the scoreline was a fair reflection of the game and, given the other results on Saturday, has not adversely affected our position in the table.  So time to forget that one and prepare for the early kick-off next Saturday and the opportunity to reach the FA Cup semi-final.  Palace will be difficult opponents, but they are very beatable so we all need to bring our best game.  If we do, it could be an occasion to savour.  I’m nervous already!

 

40 Years On

Gerard Deulofeu

I am normally pretty irritated when our games are moved to stupid times for television, and it has to be said that there is no more stupid time for football than midday on a Sunday.  However, on this occasion, I was actually quite pleased as it meant that I would attend a game on the 40th anniversary of my first matchday at Vicarage Road.  On that occasion, Chesterfield were the visitors for a third division game.  My friends and I went to the Wimpy for lunch before the game (a great treat in those days), we won the game 2-0 with goals from Ian Bolton and Ross Jenkins and I was officially hooked.

Work commitments in the US meant that I was unable to go to Liverpool for the midweek game.  I must say that, as I followed the game from afar and the goals started going in, my regret at not being at Anfield dissipated a little.  This is only the second league game that I have missed this season, in those games we have failed to score while conceding nine goals.  I will do everything within my power to ensure that I am ever present from now until May.

Etienne Capoue

Given the early start, I decided to forego a pre-match beer and head straight for the ground.  All the more time to spend with the family, a particular pleasure on this occasion as my niece, Maddie, was making a rare visit to Vicarage Road.  I had given her my season ticket seat and intended to sit in the vacant seat of a friend who couldn’t make it, but one of our neighbours kindly moved and we were able to all sit together.

Leicester’s decision to dispense with the services of Claude Puel and appoint Brendan Rodgers meant that this was the third home game in a row in which we would face a former manager.  It also ensured a better atmosphere than may have been expected on a Sunday lunchtime as Mr Integrity returned to Vicarage Road.

Team news was that Gracia had made just the one change with the return of Holebas from suspension meaning that he took the place of Masina.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu and Deeney.  After the away team was announced, Tim Coombs asked the Watford fans to give a big welcome to our former manager, which had the predicted response of a loud chorus of boos.

Deeney looks pretty happy to have opened the scoring

The Hornets started brilliantly and should have taken the lead in the second minute when Mariappa met a Holebas free kick with a shot from close range that Schmeichel did brilliantly to stop, the follow-up from Deulofeu was deflected wide.  But the Hornets were not to be denied for long and in the fifth minute Deeney rose to meet a free kick from Deulofeu and head past Schmeichel.  That certainly settled the early nerves.  Our first indication that we would have a typically torrid time with Jon Moss came in the 13th minute when the referee deemed a challenge from Mariappa on Vardy as deserving of a yellow card.  Vardy then found himself in the wars again as he and Foster came for a free kick and collided heavily.  They were both down for a while with Foster taking the longer to recover.  When Ben finally sat up he looked into the television camera that was directly in front of him and stuck out his tongue.  I breathed a sigh of relief at that point.  Leicester then had a dominant spell but the only chance of note came as Ricardo played a ball across the penalty area for Chilwell to cut back for Barnes who shot high and wide of the target.  Watford had a good chance to score a second goal, as Capoue released Deeney who put in a decent cross for Doucouré, but the Leicester defenders stopped the shot.  The Hornets fashioned another chance as Pereyra found Deulofeu who went on a run into the box but could only shoot straight at Schmeichel.  At the other end Ricardo put in a low cross that looked dangerous until Mariappa met it with a powerful clearance that went out for a throw.  Watford had the last chance of the half as a long pass released Pereyra who crossed for Deeney, but there were two Leicester defenders in attendance who stopped him getting a shot in.

Holebas takes a free kick

So the half time whistle went after a really decent half of football that was quite unexpected as Sunday lunchtime television games are not exactly known for their entertainment value.  The game had gone in waves of possession, but Foster had yet to make a save.

The players had warmed up for the game wearing shirts showing the Man of Men which is the symbol for the Prostate Cancer UK charity.  Mike Parkin of the From the Rookery End podcast was on the pitch at half time talking about the charity.  Last year he did the March for Men, which I did a couple of years ago, in order to raise funds for research into prostate cancer, a disease that has affected his father as it has friends and family of mine so it is a cause very close to my heart and I was delighted to see the efforts at this game to raise awareness of a horrible disease that affects so many men.

 

Deeney waiting for the ball to drop

The visitors had the first chance of the second half with a shot from distance that was straight at Foster.  The first chance of the half for the Hornets should have led to them increasing their lead as Pereyra played the ball out to Doucouré on the edge of the box, he hit a gorgeous shot that needed a brilliant one-handed save from Schmeichel to keep it out.  Jon Moss was increasingly attracting the ire of the Watford fans as he blew up for a series of innocuous looking fouls (by the Hornets) while waving play on for infringements from Leicester that looked far more obvious.  The annoyance was compounded when he booked Capoue for a nothing foul.  At this point, the Leicester fans decided to serenade Troy with a chorus of “Troy Deeney, what a w*nk*r.”  Troy just laughed and applauded them.  There was another clash of striker and goalkeeper, this time a ball was played over the top to Deeney, Schmeichel came out to clear and they collided.  Troy was booked which seemed harsh as he had every right to go for that ball.  Both teams made their first substitution within minutes of each other and, in each case, a player called Gray took the field, in the place of Barnes for the visitors and Deulofeu for the Hornets.  Gerry looked very unhappy at the decision.  Leicester came close with a speculative shot from Ndidi that rebounded off the crossbar.

Doucoure, Hughes and Cathcart gathering for a free kick

Watford fans were shouting for a free kick as Deeney was fouled, at least I believe a big defender leaning on your back is a foul, Jon Moss clearly does not, so waved play on allowing Tielemans to release Vardy who broke forward and chipped Foster to get the equalizer.  At this point the nerves really set in and I was sure that Leicester would get a winner.  Rodgers made a double change with Tielemans and Vardy making way for Mendy and Iheanacho.  The visitors having drawn level, Moss relented and finally awarded a free kick to the Hornets and booked Pereira for a foul on Deeney, decisions that earned the referee an ironic standing ovation from the Watford fans.  The visitors threatened to get a winner with a dangerous looking cross from Chilwell, but Foster was down to make a comfortable save.  They had another decent chance as Morgan met a cross from Maddison but the header was wide of the target.  Gracia made a final change bringing Cleverley on for Hughes just as the fourth official held up the board indicating that there were four minutes of added time.  Following the equaliser, Leicester had looked the more likely winners, but it was the Hornets who snatched a late goal as Deeney played a lovely ball through to Gray and, with the Rookery screaming encouragement, he shrugged off the attentions of the defender and finished past Schmeichel to send the home fans into a wild celebration.  Our little group were bouncing up and down in a lovely family group hug.  Gray was booked for taking his shirt off.  It was worth it.  My heart was pounding for the remainder of the added time, but the final whistle went and the celebrations started again.

As the referee left the field, he was roundly booed by the home fans.  It was no more than he deserved, but it annoyed me as we should have been cheering our lads after that win.

A family of Watford fans

Back to the West Herts for a post-match pint.  I had been warned that, prior to the game, “our” table had been taken over by a group of Scandinavians.  It turns out that this was a large group of Norwegians who were old friends of Don, who had met them on a pre-season tour of Norway in the early 80s, which was when he had first met his good friend, Trond (now a Watford resident and season ticket holder).  One of the visitors had been to our match at Kaiserslautern, so these were not tourists jumping on the Premier League bandwagon at Watford.

Consensus after the game was that we would have lost that one last year … and the year before … and probably the year before that.  Leicester had more possession during the game, but the Watford defence had been steadfast, restricting their shooting opportunities such that, the goal apart, Foster wasn’t tested.  The Hornets played some lovely football and it was Schmeichel who had made the more impressive saves.  Deeney put in a superb Captain’s performance that was capped with his goal and assist.  What has been particularly pleasing this season is that the second half slump has not materialized.  We continue to be challenging opposition for (almost) all of our opponents.  We now have 43 points and look likely to surpass all of our previous premier league totals making this a season to remember and cherish.

The forty years that I have been watching the Hornets have provided me with some incredible experiences.  Our small town club has punched above its weight for most of that time and given us a team to be proud of.  I have met many lovely people, made great friends and have so many happy memories.  But one of the loveliest things is to see the next generation of fans coming to games.  So many of my friends and those who sit around me in the Rookery are now bringing children and grandchildren to games and sharing the joy with them.  Our family group is one of those and the highlight of this game for me was seeing our Maddie celebrating the goals.  She may not go very often, but she is definitely a Watford fan.  It proves the adage that you can take the girl out of Watford, but you can’t take Watford out of the girl.

Magic Deulofeu

Lining up a free kick

Due to the Six Nations game between Wales and England being played in Cardiff on the Saturday, our match was changed to Friday night.  This meant an afternoon off work and a journey to Wales on an early afternoon train from London that was already full of rugby fans.  It has to be said that the train was definitely the right decision as the M4 was at a standstill and the supporters coach from Watford took over five hours to get there.

Having checked into the hotel, we headed for a real ale and cider bar.  It was in a basement under student accommodation, which didn’t sound promising, but it turned out to be a lovely comfortable place with a tremendous selection.  We had a drink there and then headed for our designated pre-match venue to meet up with Alice and have something to eat.  As I collected the cutlery, I was gratified to see that the napkins were yellow.  That had to be a good omen.  After a beer and a veggie chilli we headed for the ground.  It is a while since we have been there, and I still look wistfully at the flats that took the place of Ninian Park.  That was a tatty old place, but what an atmosphere.

Team news was that Gracia had made two changes with the suspended Holebas replaced by Masina and fit again Pereyra in for Sema.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa, Masina; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.

Hughes, Deeney and Doucoure challenging

As I pulled my green shirt out of my bag, Graham helpfully pointed out that it was the wrong colour.  My Girl Guide training came in handy as I went back to my bag and retrieved the yellow shirt instead.  I was all set for the game.

Prior to kick-off there was a minute’s applause for former players Matthew Brazier and Brian Edgley, both of whom had recently passed away.

The first chance for the Hornets came from a decent cross from Janmaat which bounced off Pereyra who didn’t seem to have seen it coming.  Janmaat was also involved in the next goal attempt, playing a one-two with Deeney before firing over the target.  Cardiff’s first chance of note came as Paterson flicked a ball through to Niasse who only had Foster to beat, but the Watford keeper stood tall and blocked the shot. Watford took the lead in the 18th minute, Deeney did brilliantly to keep hold of the ball before finding Deulofeu who slotted the ball into the near corner.  The home side tried to strike back immediately, but the shot from distance from Murphy was easily gathered by Foster.

Ben Foster

Watford should have had a second just before the half hour mark as Deeney unleashed a powerful shot that was well saved by Etheridge.  The first booking of the game went to Capoue for a foul on Niasse which looked pretty innocuous from our vantage point.  The resulting free kick was taken low and touched on by Arter straight to Foster.  There was a very nervous moment just before half time as Janmaat tangled with Murphy just inside the box.  It was right in front of us and looked like a definite penalty, but the referee waved play on, much to the relief of the travelling Hornets.  The home fans made their displeasure known with a chorus of “You’re not fit to referee.”  So we reached half time with the Hornets a goal to the good.  While we were very fortunate with the penalty decision, we were so obviously the better team that an equaliser would have been a travesty.

Before the start of the second half, Foster’s warm-up was accompanied by howls of derision from the Cardiff fans behind the goal.  He good naturedly kicked the ball into the crowd, which backfired when the game had to be stopped as the ball was thrown back on the pitch during play.  The first chance of the half fell to the home side, but Bacuna’s shot from distance was well over the target.  Watford’s first chance of the half came after some lovely passing between Hughes and Deeney, the shot from the captain was deflected just wide.  Pereyra then found his way into the referee’s book after a silly pull on Niasse.

Celebrating Deeney’s first (celebrations do tend to be blurred)

Cardiff made the first substitution replacing Murphy with Hoilett.  Cardiff had another chance to grab an equaliser but Bennett’s shot from distance was easy for Foster.  Watford threatened again as Doucouré played a lovely through ball for Deulofeu, but Etheridge was first to the ball.  At the other end, Mariappa came to the rescue diverting a dangerous cross from Paterson wide of the target.  On the hour mark, Deulofeu got the ball in midfield and started running.  As he was bearing down on Etheridge, I held my breath as he has had a number of similar opportunities in the past and has made the wrong decision, losing his nerve and running into a defender or the keeper, but this time he rounded the keeper and finished into the empty net to send the away fans wild.  While I was delighted that we had scored a second, there was a nagging feeling in the back of my mind as I remembered being in a similar position in the home game.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry for long as three minutes later Capoue latched on to a poor pass from Arter before playing a lovely ball to Deulofeu who chipped the keeper to grab his hat trick.  At this point, many of the home fans had seen enough so started heading home.  Warnock made a second substitution bringing Mendez-Laing on for Ralls.  The home side won a free kick in a decent position, but Hoilett blasted it into the wall.  Gracia’s first change was to bring Quina on for Pereyra, while Cardiff made their last substitution replacing Niasse with Zohore.

Celebrations of the fifth in time added on

Watford scored a fourth on 73 minutes after a period of sublime passing, Capoue played a wonderful through ball to Deulofeu who accelerated into the box and cut the ball back to Deeney to finish past Etheridge.  The players celebrated right in front of us and Deeney was rightfully (but decently) deflecting the plaudits to Gerry.  Deulofeu had a decent chance to score his fourth as he received a pass from Hughes but shot wide of the far post.  Watford then made their second substitution bringing Cleverley on for Capoue.  Irritatingly, the Hornets failed to keep a clean sheet as a corner led to a goalmouth scramble, the Watford defence failed to clear and Bamba was able to prod the ball past Foster.  The first booking for the home side went to Paterson who was penalised for pulling Quina to the ground.  The final Watford substitution came with five minutes to go and it was the hat trick hero, Deulofeu, who left the field to a standing ovation as he made way for Gray.  Cleverley almost scored the fifth from a free kick which looked to be curling in but hit the near post.  Cardiff had a chance to reduce the deficit further but Paterson’s shot from distance was so far over the bar that it sparked the observation that he was supposed to score a try first.  Into time added on and Watford finally scored a fifth goal as Hughes played the ball back to Deeney who scored to finish off a cracking game.  The scoreboard operator was clearly exhausted as the goal wasn’t acknowledged until the players were back in the centre circle ready for the restart.  The final whistle went sparking wild celebrations in the away end.  The players all came over to celebrate with the crowd and the songs and cheers went on for some time.  Deulofeu secured the match ball, despite an attempt by Doucouré to steal it.  As the others left him to it, he stood alone in front of the away fans while we told him he was magic.  It was a lovely moment.

Deulofeu taking the plaudits while ensuring the match ball is in sight

We walked back into town and headed for the real ale bar expecting it to be heaving with rugby fans, so were delighted to find that there were seats available and we could have our post-match analysis in comfort.  That was easily our best performance this year so far.  We played some lovely football and finally turned dominance in possession into a convincing win.  It was an excellent team performance and at various points during the game I declared my love for Cathcart and Doucouré.  I also thought Hughes had a decent game, he seems to be getting back to his best.  But the plaudits have to go to Deulofeu.  Troy was spot on in his post-match comments.  Gerard can be incredibly frustrating, holding on to the ball too long, making poor decisions and not making the most of the chances that he creates.  However, he never stops working and he continues to create those chances.  This was a reward for all of that hard work and both the players and the fans were delighted for him.  I hope that he treasures that match ball.

It was a tremendous performance.  Our first top flight hat trick since 1986.  What pleased me most was that, despite having a comfortable lead, we didn’t sit back, we carried on attacking, playing with flair and going for goal.  To score five at any level is impressive.  In the Premier League it is very special.

I am still pinching myself as I look at the table and realise that we have reached the magic 40 point mark (which is unlikely to be needed this season) and it is still February.  This is a season that will go down in history and I am loving it.