Early evening kick offs on a Saturday always play merry hell with my nerves. I must have checked the kick-off time a dozen times in the morning, but I still made sure that I was in Watford in plenty of time should the kick off actually be at 3pm. This meant that I was in the West Herts rather earlier than was strictly necessary, all the better for tracking the progress of our rivals for the European spots <cough>.
It had been a foul afternoon with persistent rain soaking me on the way to the West Herts but, thankfully, it eased off as we made our way to the ground. It appears that the Christmas break has been so relaxing that my brain has ceased to work as, for the second game in a row, I tried to use my Oyster card to get through the turnstile.
Team news was that Holebas came in for the suspended Aké and Nyom replaced Anya. So the starting line-up was Gomes, Holebas, Britos, Cathcart, Nyom, Watson, Capoue, Jurado, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.
Before the game, I wondered how our approach to this fixture would differ from the game at Eastlands where we looked to contain the opposition and I don’t remember us passing the half way line in the first half. So I was delighted to see us attacking in the first minute as a lovely move from Jurado found Abdi by way of Deeney but sadly Almen shot over the bar. Kolarov then had a couple of chances for the visitors, first a shot from distance that was well wide of the target, then a cross that Gomes gathered at the second attempt. Ighalo’s first chance of the game came as a misclearance reached Abdi who played the Nigerian in but his shot was cleared for a corner. Abdi then found Deeney in the box, where he was hacked down. There were screams for a penalty from the home fans, but nothing was given. Watford threatened again as Abdi found Ighalo who shook off his marker but the shot was saved by Hart. Ighalo then won a free kick on the edge of the area. A number around me were asking for an Abdi special, but it was Watson who stepped up and fired just over the bar.
Chants of “Where were you when you were sh*t,” were aimed at the Man City supporters, which was rather unfair given that City have always attracted good crowds. The chant came straight back at us with, I have to say, somewhat more justification. There was danger in the Watford box as Gomes parried a shot from De Bruyne but, thankfully, Aguero was unable to connect with the rebound. Ighalo’s persistence won a corner for the Hornets, Cathcart connected with Watson’s delivery but the header was downwards and Hart was able to gather. At the other end, Silva broke into the box but good defensive work by Britos and Watson meant that the ball rolled harmlessly through to Gomes. Fernandinho then broke forward, his shot was saved by the feet of Gomes and Sterling’s follow-up was high and wide. Aguero got the ball in space in the Watford box, but Cathcart closed him down brilliantly and the ball ended up in the side netting. The only booking of the game came when Nyom took a dive and was shown a yellow card. Lads as big as Nyom always look rather foolish when they take a tumble like that, so I really don’t know why they do it. Watford had a chance to take the lead just before half time as a Watson free-kick was punched clear and Jurado’s follow-up was just wide of the target. So we reached half-time goalless, just as we had at Eastlands in August, but this game couldn’t have been more different as we had been lively in attack, had matched the visitors and had the better goal chances.
At half time, Tommy Smith was on the pitch drawing the 50-50 tickets and reminiscing about his appearances in both of our previous Premier League seasons. He was then joined by Tony Coton, who had been a star player during our spell in the top flight in the 80s. When asked why he signed for Watford, his simple answer was “Graham Taylor. You sit down and talk to Graham and he sells the club to you and you have no choice but to sign.” Tommy then presented Tony with a trophy marking the fact that he is the only player to date to win the Player of the Season award on three occasions. I think it was that man himself who mentioned that Deeney might match him if he continues playing as well as he has been. Since Coton had also played at Man City, he was given a good reception by both sets of fans and said he had to hope that the score stayed as it was.
The second half at Eastlands had started with a goal for City, so I braced myself, but the first chance of the half was a shot for Watson that was pushed around the post by Hart. The superb Watson was involved again as he took a free kick that was headed on by Cathcart in the direction of Deeney, but a last gasp clearance prevented the ball reaching Troy. City had their best chance of the game so far on 52 minutes as a Silva corner was met with a great header from Fernandinho that was just over the bar.
But it was the Hornets who took the lead two minutes later. Jurado had played a through ball to Ighalo, who won a corner. Watson’s delivery found its way past Hart via the head of Kolarov. There were mad celebrations and a period of bouncing in the Rookery although that petered out as all eyes were on a City attack that, thankfully, came to nothing. Watford continued to attack as Nyom played the ball in to Ighalo, but there were two City defenders in attendance to stop him shooting. The first substitution came on the hour as Sterling, who had been so influential in the earlier tie, was replaced by Navas for the visitors. A brilliant run by Holebas finished with a shot that was blocked by Ighalo of all people. At the other end, De Bruyne cut the ball back to Touré who hit his shot well over the target. De Bruyne was the next to threaten the Watford goal with a shot that was tipped wide by Gomes. Touré then tried a shot from distance that was wide of the target. It occurred to me at this point that it was a while since I had sat down, which is unusual in the Rookery as the crowd tends to stand only during periods of high tension, then the penny dropped. Watford had another decent chance as Holebas played the ball in to Abdi, but the shot was wide of the target. City made their second substitution as Bony came on for Mangala. Watford had a great chance to increase their lead as Capoue broke into the box and beat the defender, but the ball took an awkward bounce and his shot was not as clean as it could have been and flew wide of the target. Watford’s first substitution came after 80 minutes with Guedioura coming on for Jurado who went off to an ovation and his name being sung. It was a nice contrast to the grief that he often gets from the crowd, but this was by some way his best performance to date in a Watford shirt.
I blame myself entirely for what happened next. I dropped my pen and could not locate it, so felt in my bag and retrieved the pen that I had used for the Tottenham game. I thought about rooting about for an alternative but decided against it, I was soon to regret that decision when City hit their equalizer. I couldn’t see it properly as it was at the other end of the ground but television pictures show that Touré met Kolarov’s corner with a stunning volley. Hearts broke in the home stands as City got their second a couple of minutes later as Sagna broke forward and hit a gorgeous cross for Aguero to head past Gomes. Given the performance of the Hornets, it felt beyond cruel that we were behind and, for the first time in the game, the City fans were in full voice. Almost immediately, Pellegrini made another substitution which appeared designed to waste time as Demichelis came on for Aguero after a false start when Silva’s number was shown. Neither of the possible substitutes was in a hurry to leave the field. Watford pushed for an equalizer as Guedioura played Ighalo in, but Hart was able to block the shot. Deep into injury time, Deeney tried to find Ighalo but the ball was headed clear and the visitors left Vicarage Road with all three points. Despite the disappointment, many in the crowd stayed to cheer the Watford players for what had been a tremendous performance. Ben Watson was, quite rightly, given Man of the Match, but special mention should go to Jurado for a sparkling display and Holebas who, earlier in the season, had been rumoured to be on his way out due to his poor attitude put in a tremendous shift and meant that we didn’t miss Aké as we might have done.
As we made our way out of the ground there was a feeling of dejection and many comments along the lines that we hadn’t deserved that defeat. To go in to the last 10 minutes in the lead and then conceded two goals in quick succession was very hard to take. But, once the dust settled, I felt a lot happier. Before the game I had been thinking back to the match at their place earlier in the season when we didn’t have a shot on target. While I understood the approach, it had been very difficult to watch. In this game, we had matched City and were beaten by two excellent pieces of skill as our defence tired. Prior to the tough run of Christmas games, there was an expectation that we would see what this team was made of. As we finish that period with 4 points and disappointment as we deserved more from the two defeats, I find myself bursting with pride and the feeling that we can take on any team in this division. As we left the ground, we went through the GT stand and enjoyed the wonderful banners that commemorate the great man’s time at the club. I have always regarded those banners with a tinge of sadness that we would never witness times like that again. On Saturday, I found that sadness no longer existed. This is a truly wonderful time to be a Watford fan.