There was a certain element of groundhog day as the fixture computer gave us Everton away for the first game of the season, just as they did on our last visit to the Premier League. On that occasion, I left Watford at the crack of dawn on match day in order to visit Anthony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby Beach, a place that I have come to love. The decision to add a distraction from the football was justified when we were robbed of a point due to a referee penalizing Chris Powell for a handball which actually struck his head. On arrival back at Watford Junction that evening, I bumped into Graham Simpson whose reaction to my concerns about that sort of luck plaguing our season was typically stroppy. I was saddened to be proved correct come the following May.
In the light of my previous experience, it was, perhaps, tempting fate to add a cultural element to Saturday’s visit to Liverpool. But, as my train arrived very early, I arranged to meet a friend at the Walker Gallery and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Normal matchday protocol was soon resumed as the usual suspects gathered in a lovely old pub for beer and delicious pies. There was a lot of discussion pre-match about the propensity for pundits to predict our immediate relegation without having a clue about our manager or players. A bit of pragmatism was introduced as we acknowledged that most of us were equally ignorant of how our new recruits would perform and whether the team would gel in time.
The taxi driver who took us to the ground was clearly a red as he wished us luck while commenting that the Everton fans were expecting to thrash us. I can’t say that I doubted their confidence. Despite the feeling that we had made some quality signings during the Summer, I was feeling rather flat at the prospect of the new season.
Flores’s first competitive line-up included six new signings. The team was Gomes, Holebas, Prodl, Cathcart, Nyom, Behrami, Capoue, Layun, Jurado, Anya and Deeney. Former Watford loanee and Player of the Season, Tom Cleverley started for Everton.
As the formalities started before the game, there was a silly arch on the pitch that seemed to have no purpose beyond decoration. Also, I must admit that I didn’t hear Z-cars, which saddened me a bit. But, finally, the build-up was over and the game kicked off.
The first goal action came in the 12th minute from the visitors as a Capoue cross was touched back by Layun to Deeney who tried a bicycle kick that flew wide. A minute later, Watford took the lead as a Deeney shot was blocked, it fell to Layun who hit it beautifully into the corner. The away end erupted with joy and, apologies for the blurred photo, but it was all I could do to point the camera, I couldn’t stop my hands shaking. Everton nearly equalized five minutes later as a corner from Mirallis was headed goalwards by Barry but Gomes was on hand to tip the ball over the bar. Capoue and Jurado exchanged passes, but the return was taken off the Frenchman’s feet. A through ball to Anya came to nothing as Howard was first to it. On 25 minutes, I saw a couple of fans that I know taking their seats. I had heard that the coaches were delayed and could only sympathise that they had missed our (opening) goal. It wasn’t until I got home that I discovered that the traffic queues on the M6 were caused by a friend of mine breaking down in the outside lane. She missed the game completely and insult was added to injury when she found out that her seat would have been very close to that occupied by her beloved professor Almen Abdi.
Back to the game and Everton had a lot of possession, but the Watford lads were doing a great job of frustrating them, constantly snapping at their feet and giving them no space at all such that it took nearly half an hour for the home side’s first goal attempt from open play which was a Barkley shot from distance that flew well over the bar. Barkley’s next attempt came soon after and was considerably more dangerous, a shot from the left of the area that required a touch from Gomes to keep it out. Cleverley was the next to threaten the Watford goal, but his cross-cum-shot was weak and easily gathered by the Watford keeper. A Barkley cross was headed clear by Holebas. Then Nyom appeared to be beaten on the wing, but caught his player, dispossessed him and went haring away with the ball, it was a real shame that this piece of joyous skill came to nothing as, when the ball eventually reached Capoue, he shot straight at Howard. Anya crossed for Deeney in the Everton box, but Stones fell on the ball which then broke to Galloway and Troy’s attempt to retrieve the ball left the Everton player on the floor and earned the Watford man a yellow card. Gomes came out to deal with a long ball and, as he was close to the edge of his area, pushed it clear of the attacking player. The home fans behind the goal appealed that he’d handled outside the box, but we were in line with it and it looked a legitimate move. There were smiles on Hornet faces again as Jurado nutmegged his man, the ball eventually reached Layun who shot just wide of the far post.
So we reached half time a goal to the good. But the smiles in the away end were as much to do with the performance, which had been disciplined to the extent of restricting the home team mostly to desperate shots from distance. Our defence, which came in for some criticism last season, looked solid. As a fan of Angella, it hurts me to admit this, but Prodl and Cathcart look like a formidable partnership. The quality of our other new recruits was clear to see and the concerns about the team gelling had been quelled. These were clearly lads who had met before.
It was unsurprising that Everton changed their shape in the second half and became more of a challenge. The first chance fell to Lukaku whose shot from a narrow angle was straight at Gomes. A long clearance from the Watford keeper reached Deeney whose downward header was gathered by Howard. Mirallas made a run down the wing and crossed, but Gomes punched for a corner that he comfortably gathered. A cross from Barkley gave Lukaku a great chance to equalize, but he headed wide. Lukaku then turned Cathcart but the Watford defender was soon back to snuff out the threat. An attempt to break by Capoue was stopped by Coleman who was booked for the foul. Watford’s first substitution saw Paredes replacing the goalscorer, Layun. Anya went on a great run down the wing, but his cross was blocked by Stones. Holebas was booked for taking too long over the resulting throw. When he finally released the ball, it was returned to him and he dribbled into the box but his shot was blocked. The Greek then tried a shot from distance that was punched by Howard as far as Jurado who shot over the bar.
A cross from Cleverley was met by the head of Kone who directed it just wide. Another Everton cross flew over the heads of the Watford defenders and reached Mirallas who clearly wasn’t expecting the ball, so it bounced off him. Watford’s second substitution saw the tiring Jurado replaced by Ighalo. Watford had had the lead for an hour, but the home side equalized with a lovely strike from Barkley which came after Behrami had tried to play the ball out instead of wellying it. I worried at this point that the home side would take control but the next chance was a Deeney header from a Holebas cross that Howard gathered, although I believe the lino on the opposite side had his flag raised. The final change for the Hornets saw Watson replace Behrami. The Hornets regained the lead on 83 minutes as Ighalo received the ball on the edge of the box and dummied England internationals Stones and Jagielka before coolly finishing past Howard. At this point, Deeney was standing in the box with his fists raised in celebration and the home fans were streaming for the exit. More fool them, as Everton equalized soon after as their substitute, Kone, shot across Gomes into the far corner. Both teams tried to push for the win. First Anya cut inside, but his shot was a bit weak and flew wide. Then Lukaku broke into the Watford box, Nyom got a touch to put him off and his subsequent shot was caught by Gomes. The five minutes of injury time passed without incident and the Hornets left Goodison Park with their first ever point at that venue.
There was some disappointment among some Watford fans that we had twice surrendered the lead. Others, me included, felt that we would have bitten hands off if offered a draw at the start of the game. We met a number of Toffees fans on our journey back to the city centre who were very complimentary about our performance and scathing of theirs. Most Watford fans were impressed with our strong showing and the quality of our new signings. Quique has promised us a surprise in each game. I am not sure that will be good for my blood pressure or my sanity, but I am intrigued to see how he will set up at home. So far, so good and I am really looking forward to the rest of the season.