As the train made its way to the midlands I received an e-mail from a colleague telling me to enjoy my holiday. Looking at the rain streaking the window I replied that my enjoyment of the time off was completely in the hands of the Watford players. Since my message to my usual travelling companions to see who wanted tickets for this fixture had elicited only negative responses, the football was the only thing I had to look forward to that evening.
Jokanovic had two changes forced on him due to injuries to Bassong and Munari and added three more for good measure so the starting line-up was Gomes, Doyley, Ekstrand, Hoban, Paredes, Anya, Tözsér, McGugan, Ighalo, Forestieri and Deeney. This provoked much wailing among fans and doom-laden references to the game at Bristol City when Zola made wholesale changes. On the positive side, it meant that Lloyd Doyley made his 400th start for Watford, what a tremendous servant he has been. Birmingham’s captain was former Watford favourite Paul Robinson. It still hurts to remember giving him away for peanuts.
As soon as I heard that Birmingham had won only once in their last 25 home games, my heart sank. They had a new manager in Gary Rowett, who was introduced to great fanfare. With the Watford fans chanting “We are top of the league,” and goading the home fans about their recent 8-0 defeat this was one of those nights where I feared that pride would come before a fall.
Donaldson threatened the Watford goal in the first minute but Tommie Hoban was on hand to make a saving tackle. The respite was brief as the home side took the lead in the second minute as McGugan lost the ball on the sideline while trying to play out of defence, Gleeson crossed for Donaldson whose shot was deflected past Gomes by Ekstrand. Forestieri tried to hit back immediately with an ambitious shot that was well over the bar. But Watford drew level on seven minutes.
Doyley got the ball in an advanced position where he was greeted with shouts of “shoooot”, he exchanged passed with McGugan then cut the ball back for Forestieri whose initial shot was blocked by Randolph, but he made no mistake with the follow-up. Ighalo passed across to Deeney who played it back to McGugan but his shot was put out for a corner. At the other end, Caddis crossed for Cotterill who wellied the ball well over the target. Just before the half hour, Caddis put in another dangerous cross but Shinnie’s header was horrible as he directed the ball straight in front of him when the goal was some distance to his right. Anya made a forward run and cut the ball back for Forestieri who had to stretch for the shot which was blocked. Robbo was the next to threaten the Watford goal, but his header was cleared by Ekstrand. Birmingham should have taken the lead with a great free-kick from Cotterill which required a flying save from Gomes to keep it out. At the other end Randolph had to pull off a similar save to repel a belting shot from Deeney. A shot from Cotterill was cleared and Watford launched a counter attack that finished with a cross from Ighalo which flew past the onrushing Forestieri. Then a cross from Paredes was deflected to Randolph by one of his defenders. In the final minute of the half, Gomes was on hand to push a shot from Gleeson clear.
At the start of the second half, Ighalo did well to keep the ball when tackled and eventually found space to shoot but his shot was over the target. The first yellow card of the game went to Davis who hacked Anya down rather needlessly as the whistle had already gone. Forestieri found McGugan who played a ball over the top into the box but it was too far in front of Deeney. Ighalo played a square ball to McGugan whose curling shot was easily caught by Randolph. A dangerous shot by Donaldson was cleared by Hoban, there followed a sustained Birmingham attack where the Watford defence could not clear but the home side eventually did us a favour by putting the ball out for a goal kick. At this point the home fans found their voice and it has to be said that they make an impressive sound when they get going. The first substitution came in the 58th minute as Ighalo made way for Andrews who was tasked with shoring up the midfield.
A ball into the Watford box was headed back to Gleeson who wellied it wide. Hopes rose in the away end as Tözsér stepped up to take a free-kick on the edge of the box, but it was woeful, clearing the bar by some distance. My nerves were on edge as a deflected shot appeared to be drifting towards our goal, Doyley cleared but the flag was up anyway. At last a moment of quality with a lovely passing move along the length of the pitch, a defender slipped allowing Andrews to get a cross in but it was put out for a corner. Then Deeney broke free and played Anya in but he couldn’t muster a shot. McGugan and Deeney exchanged passes before Lewis tried an early shot that was well wide of the near post. Then Deeney chested the ball down to Andrews but he lifted his shot over the bar. The home side made their first substitution replacing Arthur with Gray. There were cheers from the travelling Horns as Vydra was spotted getting ready to come on. His name had been chanted in the away end for about 10 minutes before the change. He replaced Forestieri with 15 minutes remaining. Anya looked as though he’d run the ball out of play on the sideline, but was allowed to continue, broke into the box executed some ridiculous step-overs and then ran the ball out of play behind the goal line. Just awful.
The home side’s second substitution saw Thomas replace Shinnie. Andrews was booked for a robust tackle on Caddis. Cotterill took the resulting free-kick, hitting another dreadful shot that was well off target. In the 84th minute, the home side took the lead as a cross from Cotterill was met with a powerful header from Donaldson that flew past Gomes. Watford could have no complaints. Watford tried to strike back as Deeney played a through ball to Anya but the Scot was offside. Anya exchanged passes with Vydra whose shot was blocked, the ball rebounded to Andrews but got stuck under his feet as he was challenged and the ball was cleared. Watford’s second booking went to Deeney who was penalized for a foul on Morrison. Robbo rose to head a cross from Anya clear, the follow-up shot from the Scot was saved by Randolph and the home side took all three points.
At the final whistle, the players started to trudge off but Gomes could be seen calling Paredes back to applaud the travelling fans. I couldn’t bring myself to applaud them back. But when Robbo ran up the field as one of the last to leave, I and others around me couldn’t help but acknowledge his efforts and he responded in kind to the Watford fans who had been so sporting.
It had been a miserable performance on a cold evening. Birmingham hadn’t been great, although I was relieved that Cotterill had been so wasteful with the chances that fell to him as it could have been much worse. So the unbeaten run is at an end, but I’m still looking forward to the trip to Ipswich on Saturday where I’m hoping for better things. The phrase “glutton for punishment” comes to mind.