I have to admit to being delighted at the news that Watford were upgrading their Academy to EPPP2 status, if only because it meant that the Development squad would be playing in a league. I wasn’t quite so thrilled to find out that many of the games would be early afternoon, but the first coincided with some time off work so, what better way to spend a Summer Monday than to take a trip to Sheffield Wednesday’s training ground.
I thought I had left loads of time to get there, but there was no sign of a tram to Middlewood so I took the blue line to Hillsborough and started walking. Needless to say, I soon spotted the Middlewood tram behind me so ran to the next tram stop and managed to catch it. Instructions on how to reach the training ground had been ambiguous, so I asked the young tram conductor whether I should get off at Leppings Lane or Middlewood. She suggested the latter, although wasn’t totally convinced. I had just spotted the sign for the ground when she came back with a relieved smile to point it out to me and the Middlewood stop was just around the corner. Perfect! As always when reaching an unfamiliar venue, I was very happy to see the team coach. The car park was full, but there was only a little space to watch the game that wasn’t behind a net.
When I arrived, the players were warming up. It was good to see Alec Chamberlain there working with the goalkeepers. I then saw Harry Kewell. Good heavens, coaches are getting very young. To my aged eyes, he could have been one of the U21s. As Alec returned to the changing rooms before the game, he was greeted by a Wednesday player, our old friend Lewis McGugan.
The starting line-up was a mix of young professionals and scholars plus a trialist … and Gilmartin. The team was Gilmartin, Doherty, Trialist, Johnson, Hoban, Martin, Smith, Byers, Lewis, Jakubiak and Mensah.
Prior to kick-off there were no arches on show, but there was the ‘respect’ handshake. Watford started brightly with shots from Mensah and Lewis blocked in quick succession. At the other end, our trialist blocked a shot from Croasdale, the follow-up from Mufata was hit well over the target. Jakubiak won a free kick on the edge of the box, which Byers blasted over the crossbar. Mensah went on a run through the middle and passed to Martin on the left but the winger’s shot was gathered by Dawkins. At the other end a cross from Stobbs was straight at Gilmartin. After about 10 minutes, there was a long break in play due to an injury to Croasdale. I didn’t see the tackle, but the Wednesday fans around me were not impressed. Sadly the lad was taken off on a stretcher buggy.
After the restart, Martin made an impressive run down the left wing but his cross was disappointingly long. Hornby beat Watford’s trialist and bore down on goal, he really should have scored but hit his shot wide. A cross from Smith was blocked but reached Martin who headed down to Mensah who was offside. Martin played the ball out to Doherty whose cross was headed clear but came back to Martin whose shot was poor and flew wide of the near post. An impressive run from Connor Smith came to nothing as his shot was blocked. Then a Wednesday free kick was comfortably caught by Gilmartin. Confusion in the home defence gifted the ball to Mensah, but he was frustrated by a last ditch tackle from De Haviland. There were appeals for a penalty as the trialist seemed to bundle one of the Wednesday players over in the box, but the lino had the flag up and explained to anyone that was listening (I was) that the offside had occurred first. Mufata tried a shot from distance that was well over the bar.
I was then distracted by some action near the dug outs as a lad who, judging by the fact that he was wearing gloves, appeared to be Wednesday’s substitute keeper climbed up a wall alongside the pitch to retrieve a ball that was stuck in the branches of a tree. You wouldn’t see that in the Premier League. Martin did brilliantly on the left beating a couple of players and then advancing along the byline beating another before cutting the ball back to Jakubiak whose shot was blocked. Martin exchanged passes with Mensah before hitting a cross that was too long for Lewis to reach. Despite the long break for the injury to Croasdale, there were only a couple of minutes added at the end of the half and the teams went in scoreless.
Wednesday were out early for the second half and even the officials were on the field before the Watford squad appeared although it was only 2:01, so they’d taken their normal half time break.
The visitors had the first chance of the second half with a shot from Mensah that lacked power and was touched back to the keeper by one of the defenders. A decent shot from Jakubiak was saved by the keeper’s legs. Gilmartin was in action at the other end, pushing a corner clear. The follow up was headed away before a cross came in that eluded all the players in the box. Just before the hour, Martin passed the ball out to Lewis whose cross was just too long for Mensah to reach. Booker broke down the right for Wednesday but Doherty was on hand to block for the corner.
A lovely passing move upfield finished disappointingly as Jakubiak’s flick to Mensah found a defender blocking the Watford forward’s progress. At the other end, Hirst shot straight at Gilmartin. Watford threatened again as Lewis hit a long cross that reached Martin whose cross was just missed by the head of Mensah. A Wednesday free kick came to nothing as it cleared the wall but flew straight into the arms of Gilmartin. Watford’s first substitution came in the 65th minute as Obi replaced Lewis. Another Watford chance went begging as Jakubiak touched the ball back to Mensah who hit it over the target. Then a Smith pass was intercepted, Wednesday advanced upfield where Meadows received the ball in space, Gimartin caught the shot, but the linesman was already flagging for offside. A cross from Jakubiak was put out for a corner by Wildin. With 15 minutes remaining, Byers was booked for a cynical trip to prevent a lad progressing down the wing. Watford’s second substitution saw Makaka replacing Smith. Then Martin found Obi whose shot was blocked, as was the follow-up from Jakubiak.
Another lovely move saw Martin breaking into the box and finding Mensah who juggled the ball to Obi who was in an offside position. Mensah then played a pass for Jakubiak to run on to, but the keeper, Dawson, got to the ball first. Watford should have taken the lead as Jakubiak broke into the box and his shot rebounded to Byers who unleashed a tremendous strike that Dawson did really well to push over the bar. The corner was a little too high for Hoban who could only head it over. Watford had a further chance of a late winner as a cross from Martin reached Makaka who headed wide when he should have tested the keeper.
So, despite the dominance of the visitors, the game ended goalless. There was some lovely approach play from the Hornets, but they were dreadfully wasteful with their finishing. The trialist was a bit ponderous in the centre of the defence so didn’t impress me greatly.
As the Watford coaches left the pitch, Alec was able to catch up with another old friend as Terry Burton was in attendance. I also took the opportunity to thank our former coach for his sterling work in difficult times. He said that Watford had been one of his best experiences in football citing the semi-final as justification. It was lovely to hear that he has good memories of his time with us.
On the way out, I also had a good chat to Academy head, Chris McGuane, so, despite the result, I left Sheffield with a good feeling about the whole of the club.