Despite taking holiday for the purpose, I always feel a bit guilty leaving work early to go to an away game but, having recently taken a job in central London, it was great to be able to leave after lunch and walk to Euston in less than 20 minutes. The journey up North was uneventful, although the sky got greyer and greyer as we got closer to Manchester. Thankfully, the snow that had fallen earlier in the day had soon cleared and I must say that the outlook was brightened by the free red wine in first class.
When I arrived at the pre-match pub, there was a good gathering of North West Horns already present and we soon filled the little back room that we had occupied. There was a late decision to go to the ground by tram rather than finding a cab, and our very own tram genius directed us to the opposite platform from the crowd in Man Utd scarves. Despite some scepticism, this resulted in us being able to board an empty train marked ‘Not in Service’ that ensured a considerably more comfortable journey than the ‘locals’ who pushed their way on to an already packed carriage.
While queuing to get into the ground, there was a chap with a half and half scarf just in front of me. As could have been guessed from his unfortunate garb, he was a (Spanish) tourist so I advised him on how best to hide the red and white portion of the scarf so as not to provoke others in the Watford end. We then experienced another in a long line of ineffective searches as the steward had only a cursory look inside my rucksack, not bothering to disturb the Watford shirt that covered the rest of the contents, before giving me a “thorough” pat down that totally failed to investigate what was in my coat pockets which were bursting with metal objects. Very strange indeed especially as I was told that a young man with a kindle was told that he couldn’t bring it in and had to return to the coach to leave it there.
Team news was that Flores had made four changes with Nyom, Prödl, Holebas and Abdi in for Paredes, Cathcart, Aké and Amrabat. So the starting line-up was Gomes, Holebas, Prödl, Britos, Nyom, Behrami, Watson, Capoue, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.
Watford started very brightly as Ighalo broke into the box in the first minute but could not fashion a shot. The home side’s first chance came when Holebas almost succeeded in turning a cross from Blind past Gomes but, thankfully, the Brazilian made the save from his team mate. Soon after a bizarre looping cross was headed wide of the near post by Martial. Watford had a great chance to take the lead on 11 minutes as Deeney found Ighalo who made space to shoot but his shot was deflected wide. From the resultant corner, Watson’s delivery just evaded Britos at the far post. There was a comedy moment then as Memphis went on a dangerous run before hitting a shot that went out for a throw-in on the opposite side. A poor pass was intercepted by Ighalo who, with only the keeper to beat, should have done better but took his shot too quickly so it was an easy catch for de Gea. From a free kick, Deeney’s headed clearance dropped to Schneiderlin who shot just wide, much to the relief of the travelling Hornets. At the other end, Deeney appeared to be trying to lob de Gea, but the pass reached Ighalo who had two defenders on him so was unable to shoot. Memphis had a chance to redeem himself following his earlier mistake, but shot wide of the far post. Watford threatened again as Capoue and Deeney exchanged passes before the Frenchman was hacked down by Fosu-Mensah who was booked for the challenge. Watson played the free kick low to Holebas, whose shot was blocked before Prödl shot wide.
Watford had another tremendous chance as Deeney headed a Capoue cross down to Ighalo who turned and volleyed, but again the shot was just wide. At the other end, the ball bounced off a couple of United heads in the Watford box before falling to Martial whose shot didn’t trouble Gomes. Watford had yet another chance to open the scoring through Abdi, but his shot from the edge of the box cleared the target. Ighalo attacked again, broke into the box and, with Deeney in space to his left, opted to shoot and de Gea saved with his legs. United again failed to test Gomes as Herrera curled a cross wide of the far post. The last chance of the first half fell to Ighalo, who picked up another poor back pass but, again, his shot was blocked by de Gea. So we reached half time goalless and disappointed that Ighalo hadn’t finished at least one of his chances as he could have had a hat trick.
The Nigerian should have broken the deadlock early in the second half as he received an Abdi cross in an acre of space but he couldn’t control the ball and the chance was gone. Behrami did very well to win the ball on the wing before finding Deeney who played a back heel to Capoue who powered his shot just over the target. It was another great chance, but Capoue is destined never to score. The visitors should have taken the lead in the 50th minute as a Watson corner was met by Prödl, whose header was cleared off the line. Watford had another tremendous chance as Deeney found Ighalo who turned and curled a shot just wide.
At the other end, Gomes dived to save at the feet of Rashford and there was a delay while he received treatment. Thankfully, he was fit to continue, and was in action again soon after, saving a Mata shot from the edge of the area. The home side then won a free kick on the edge of the area that Memphis fired into the wall. So, an hour into the game, the home side finally had a spell of pressure and the United fans were heard for the first time. Then Deeney and Igahlo combined in attack, both ended up on the ground, but the referee decided there had been no infringement. At the other end, Rashford played a ball across the face of the goal, but there was no United player on hand to convert. Mata then threatened with a shot that curled wide just. Abdi exchanged passes with Deeney but the resulting cross went begging. Watford’s first substitution came with 20 minutes remaining as Suárez replaced Abdi while United replaced Rojo with Darmian. The Spaniard was immediately in action as he broke into the box but was unable to fashion a shot. He then played a lovely ball in to Ighalo in the box, but it bounced off the Nigerian’s heel and Odion was unable to get a shot in. That was his final contribution to the game as he was replaced by Amrabat after a very frustrating evening in front of goal. At this point a chant started behind me, I couldn’t quite catch the words until I realized that it was that old favourite Elton John’s Taylor-made Army. Watford came close again as a cross from Holebas was blocked by de Gea but rebounded to Amrabat whose shot was deflected for a corner. Watson’s delivery was again met by Prödl whose header was just wide. Then Capoue intercepted a poor pass, his cross was missed by Suárez but met with a lovely volley from a defender to concede a corner.
After a brilliant spell when the visitors should have taken the lead, there was a certain inevitability to what happened next as Britos fouled Martial on the edge of the area, was booked and then Mata hit a lovely free kick over the wall and past Gomes, who had no chance. Just heartbreaking for the visiting fans, who then watched open-mouthed as the majority of the United fans in the stand next to us left the stadium. It was really quite shocking. Your team takes a narrow lead 10 minutes before the end of the game and you just walk out. Who are these people? Flores made a final substitution with five minutes to go bringing Anya on for Behrami. Watford never looked like drawing level despite the efforts of Amrabat who, first, looked to break but the ball bounced off his arm and he was booked for hand ball, a very harsh decision. Then he crossed for Anya, who did not attack the ball so it rolled through to De Gea. The game fizzled out with the visiting fans singing “1-0 and you all go home.”
It was a cruel result. Watford had been tremendous and were defeated by a lovely set piece in a game that they should have won. We had created most of the decent chances, but failed to finish so were punished. You have to feel for Ighalo whose confidence is low. He appears desperate to score and is getting into tremendous positions, but just cannot find the net. It was very pleasing to see Capoue back on form and, in fact, to see the whole team harrying their opponents and working their socks off. Quite rightly the Watford fans stood to cheer their team off, a marked contrast to the home fans who had long gone.
I wasn’t relishing the queue for the tram back to town, as my memory of our last visit was that we had to wait for an age. However, I had reckoned without our tram ninja, who came to our rescue again taking us on a short detour to a stop where there was no queue and we got a seat on the first tram that arrived. But it was a very deflated group who gathered for the post-match analysis. We were immensely proud of our team, they had played some lovely football and taken the game to United and, but for their poor finishing would have been convincing winners. Conversation then turned to the behaviour of the home crowd. My first trip to Old Trafford was in the 80s when the noise that came from Stretford End was, quite frankly, terrifying. The crowd on Wednesday evening seemed mostly to consist of day trippers in half and half scarves who were ticking a tourist box, but had no feeling for the game. What an awful shame.
I am still gutted at the result but, to end on a positive note, we have now played the team lying fifth in the table twice and have matched them on both occasions. We have dropped to 12th but, with 10 games to go, are still closer to the Champions League places than the relegation zone and that has got to bring a smile to any Watford fan’s face.