After a tremendous win and a rather lovely day out in Stoke, we were back home for the visit of West Ham. I didn’t hold out much hope of getting anything out of this game as the visitors were flying high in the table and came in to the game unbeaten in their last 7 Premier League matches. My one ray of hope was that their results against teams that they were ‘supposed’ to beat had not been impressive.
The pre-match gathering at the West Herts was joined by Al Gick who, for a number of years, was our Football Intelligence Officer, so a familiar face at away games looking out for us. It was great to be able to buy him a pint at last. As we enjoyed our drinks, we were entertained by the lunchtime match on the TV. Each Liverpool goal was loudly cheered, not because we have any love for Liverpool (I still haven’t forgiven Rush for that dive), but because it ensured that Chelsea would remain below us in the table for another week.
Flores named an unchanged team, so the starting line up was Gomes, Aké, Britos, Cathcart, Nyom, Watson, Capoue, Anya, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.
West Ham had the first chance of the game as Payet hit a shot that Gomes dropped to gather. The Rookery was, as always since the foundation of the 1881, in good voice and there was an early rendition of the Flores song. During the week, Quique had said that when he heard that song he wanted to “jump into the stand and hug every fan one by one.” I sung my heart out, so was a tad disappointed when he remained on the touchline. Still there was plenty to enjoy on the pitch. An impressive period of Watford play finished with a Watson corner which Deeney flicked on to Ighalo who tried an overhead kick which was easy for the West Ham keeper, Adrian, to deal with. Watford had a strong shout for a penalty on 10 minutes as a corner from Watson was headed goalwards by Aké, the keeper saved and the ball dropped to Deeney whose shot was handled by Carroll, but the referee waved the appeals away. Adrian almost came to regret trying to dribble in his own box as Ighalo challenged, but he just managed the clearance in time. Watford then had a long spell of pressure without creating any chance worthy of the name and I feared we might live to regret that as Moses broke down the right but he dragged his shot well wide of the far post. Watford immediately had the ball down the other end, Ighalo broke into the box and won a corner which reached Deeney who shot over the target. Soon after, a Watson free-kick was met with a header from Britos which flew over the bar.
A ball over the top from Deeney seemed to have released Anya, but his first touch was heavy and Adrian was able to put the ball out for a corner. Watford continued to threaten the West Ham goal as shots from Abdi and Ighalo were blocked in quick succession. Ighalo was looking determined to continue his goal and assist record as he beat three players to get into the box before finding Abdi who was tackled before he could get a shot in. Much as I was loving the performance, I was beginning to get a bit nervous that we were not finishing our chances. My nerves were calmed in the 38th minute as a free-kick reached Aké, who appeared to have lost the ball to Carroll, but the West Ham man inexplicably decided to play it on the byline, instead of wellying it to safety which gave Aké the opportunity to rob him and cross for Ighalo who turned the ball in from close range. There were some suggestions that the last touch had gone to an opposition player, but it looked like Ighalo’s goal from the middle of the Rookery. The visitors had a chance to equalize as a free kick from Payet was headed goalwards by Kouyaté, but Gomes caught easily. The final chance of the half went to the home side as a corner reached Abdi, but the shot was blocked.
We were very happy Hornets at half time. Not only were we a goal ahead, but it had been a very impressive performance indeed.
Bilic made two changes at half time bringing on Valencia and Zarate for Lanzini and Moses. But it was Watford who made the brighter start to the half and, within two minutes of the restart, Ighalo grabbed his second as he received a cross from Anya, and switched feet before hitting a gorgeous shot into the top corner. Ighalo had a chance for the hat trick soon after as Deeney headed the ball down to him, but his shot was blocked. Capoue then did well to beat a defender and square the ball for Deeney whose shot was high and wide. Capoue and Anya were involved in the next attack, taking it in turns to pass to each other and then have a shot that was blocked. Ighalo turned provider, finding Aké in space, but the youngster’s shot was well wide of the target. A ball over the top from Abdi found Deeney who couldn’t control and it ran through to the keeper. A rare attack from the visitors ended with a cross from Payet that went begging as Valencia’s leap failed to meet it. Back at the other end, Deeney found Abdi who shot over the bar. On the hour, the visitors had a great opportunity to reduce the deficit as Carroll connected with a ball into the box from Payet, but his volley was woeful and flew wide of the near post. Soon after, Valencia fell in the box after a challenge by Britos, there was some handbags with Capoue, but no action was taken by the referee. The first booking of the game went to Nyom who took Valencia down to stop a West Ham break. The resulting free kick was dreadful, flying straight into the arms of Gomes.
Watford’s first substitution came on 67 minutes as Paredes replaced Anya. Watford very nearly pushed the self-destruct button soon after as Cathcart, who has been a rock in defence this season, played a dreadful back pass to Gomes which was intercepted by Valencia, so there was relief when the shot came back off the post. The ball reached Carroll who fell in the box, but the penalty appeals were, again, waved away. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the Rookery who felt like we got away with that one. Watford resumed their attack as Capoue had a shot blocked and the follow up from Paredes flew just wide of the near post. But it wasn’t all Watford as a dangerous cross from Jenkinson was met with a terrific header from Cathcart to direct the ball over the bar. Collins met the resultant corner with a header that was caught by Gomes. With 15 minutes to go, Abdi was replaced by Behrami. Almen had put in another great performance, it is such a joy to see him play at this level, and went off to the sound of the crowd loudly singing his name. But Behrami is a formidable replacement, and it was lovely to see the West Ham fans applauding their former player on to the pitch. At the same time West Ham’s captain, Noble, was replaced by Jelavic. Whenever I see Noble, I recall a comment from Ray Winstone that he loved players like Noble who took their boots off after a game and walked back to their aunt’s house. I know that Noble is West Ham through and through but, in the 80s, I was also able to walk from the Boleyn ground to my aunt and uncle’s house, so it is no guarantee.
Another cross from Payet was met by a header from Carroll that didn’t trouble Gomes. The second Watford player to go into the referee’s book was Aké who was booked for what looked like a soft foul on Valencia. The visitors’ frustration was manifested as Collins went through the back of Ighalo. It was a nasty challenge, so the referee brandished the red card and the visitors finished the game with 10 men. Odion was down receiving treatment for a while, but managed to limp off and was available for post match interviews, so I hope those are good signs. His replacement was Guedioura. There were a couple of late chances for the home side. First Paredes broke into the box, but Adrian was out to save at his feet. Then, in time added on, Paredes crossed for Deeney to head the ball goalwards, but a defender was on hand to head clear.
On the final whistle, there was rapture in the home stands. This win was particularly sweet for our party as my niece is the product of a mixed marriage so was very happy to be able to return home to her Hammer father with her head held high. As usual, Troy was the last man in the post match lap of honour. When he reached the Rookery he threw his boots into the stands. The first was launched into the 1881, the other came flying towards me and, after a bit of a scramble, ended up in the hands of the lovely man who sits next to me. A nice souvenir of a wonderful game.
When we gathered back at the West Herts the usual pleasure at a win was magnified by joy at the sheer quality of the performance. We had bettered West Ham in every area of the field and were thoroughly deserving of the win, which could have been more convincing. What is even better is that this team is constantly improving. The caution of the early season play has been replaced with a greater willingness to attack, while still keeping the defence tight. There was one incident in the game when the visitors launched a counter attack and we looked stretched, but the defence was soon marshalled again and the West Ham players were frustrated. The success is down to the fact that the players are working as a team. While Deeney and Ighalo’s names are on everyone’s lips, there are no stars out there, everyone is doing their jobs and the fact that the likes of Cathcart and Watson are getting a lot of plaudits from the regulars for quietly going about their unfashionable jobs says it all. Watson has been taking set pieces for the past couple of games and we are finally getting some decent balls into the box adding to our attacking threat. We have a couple of difficult games coming up, but recent performances have given us hope that we could get something from these matches. It is also reassuring that we have a points cushion that means that a couple of bad results won’t put us in the relegation zone. That is a great position to be in at this point of the season.
There is an At Your Place event, coming up on Wednesday, which is likely to be a very happy occasion. Post match, it was suggested that we don’t ask any questions at all, but just sing the Flores song for three hours. This sounds like a very good idea. It’ll certainly give him plenty of time to hug us all.