The week before this game was dominated by feelings of disappointment following the FA Cup semi-final at which our team really didn’t do themselves justice. I had a clear indication of my level of disillusion after that game when I realized on Tuesday morning that I had completely forgotten to buy tickets for the trip to Norwich the previous day. Normally I buy my tickets for away games as soon as they go on sale.
In the wider football world, the main news of the week had been the final verdicts in the Hillsborough inquest. Those of us who went to football in the 80s were all too aware of the conditions that we faced at grounds and the attitudes of the authorities towards us. What happened at Hillsborough could just as easily have happened to me and my family and friends and the vilification that the victims and their families have endured over the past 27 years has been shocking beyond belief. I am very thankful that the truth that was so evident to anyone without an agenda in the 80s is now a matter of record. Well done to the families for never giving up their fight for justice.
On the train to the game, I was reading the BBC football website and the responses to their request for people to comment on what they were looking forward to from the day’s football. One comment stood out. “Does anyone care about Watford vs Aston Villa? #deadrubber.” It was hard to argue with that viewpoint although, even though I have felt that we were safe ever since we hit 37 points, Watford were not yet mathematically safe from relegation. When we took our seats in the Rookery, I was very impressed with the number of Aston Villa fans who had made the journey from Birmingham for this fixture. Although the mood among them did not seem particularly positive as, with good reason, they booed when the name of their captain, Lescott, was read out.
One other story dominating the Watford press during the week concerned the strong rumours that Flores would be on his way during the Summer. Speculation regarding his future seemed grossly unfair given that he had achieved the aim of keeping Watford in the Premier League with the added bonus of an FA Cup semi-final. The reaction to these rumours on the social media that I bother with had been mixed, so it was pleasing to see the 1881 display a flag bearing Flores’ face prior to kick off.
Team news was that there were four changes from Sunday with Gomes, Paredes, Anya and Suárez in for Pantilimon, Nyom, Aké and Capoue. So the starting line-up was Gomes, Anya, Britos, Cathcart, Paredes, Jurado, Watson, Suárez, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo. The Watford players all took to the pitch wearing black armbands which I assumed were in honour of Ighalo’s father who passed away last week, but I am happy to be contradicted on that one.
The support for Flores from the Watford fans continued after kick off as his name was chanted non-stop for the first 15 minutes of the game. Watford started well and fashioned an early chance as a cross from Abdi reached Jurado who played the ball out to Suárez whose shot was over the bar. Then Deeney got his head to a Jurado cross, but his connection was not solid and the ball flew wide of the Villa goal. Jurado went on a promising run which finished with a cross that was too far in front of Ighalo. Then Ighalo did well to beat a couple of defenders in the box, but his shot was blocked for a corner while Deeney was in space. At this point Troy let his strike partner know in no uncertain terms how unhappy he was with his decision making. A chant of “Championship you’re having a laugh” emanated from the away end and I could only assume this was aimed at their own players who had been woeful to that point.
Deeney made what looked like a terrible tackle on Bacuna who, thankfully, got up unharmed and there was no punishment for Deeney beyond the award of the free kick. Paredes found Abdi on the overlap, his cross reached Ighalo at the far post where his shot was blocked by Bunn sticking a foot out. At this point, half way through the first half, the Rookery crowd were yelling “shoot”, every time a Watford player got the ball anywhere near the Villa box and they were rewarded when Watson blasted a volley from distance that crashed off the crossbar. Villa’s first goal attempt came on 26 minutes and it was a dreadful shot from distance by Ayew that flew well over the target. This prompted the travelling Villa fans to jump up and down celebrating as if a goal had been scored while chanting “We’ve had a shot”. So it was a shock to everyone in the ground when the visitors took the lead two minutes later as Clark met a Westwood corner and headed it past Gomes. The Villa fans celebrated properly and followed up with “Easy, easy” and “We scored a goal.” Watford looked to hit back through Deeney who latched on to a ball over the top and won a corner off Toner. Jurado’s delivery was headed on by Britos to Abdi who should have done better with the shot, but he directed it way off target. Villa threatened again with a cross from Hutton, but Cathcart was on hand to head clear.
The Villa fans continued their continuous singing with “There’s only one Graham Taylor”, which was lovely and I was very disappointed that the Watford fans didn’t join in (I seemed to be on my own). The first caution went to Bacuna for a trip on Anya. Watford’s next chance on goal came when Deeney met a cross from Suárez with a hopeful header that flew wide. The visitors nearly extended their lead with a header from Ayew that hit the post. Watford had a decent chance to equalize as Ighalo met a cross from Abdi with a header, but Lescott was in close attendance and the ball bounced off him and safely to Bunn. In time added on at the end of the half, when a large number of fans were already in the concourses queuing for their half time refreshments, Gueye was booked for a foul on Abdi just outside the box. Almen stepped up to take the free kick himself and took the perfect free kick, hitting it up and over the wall and into the net past Bunn. Having got my camera out to capture Deeney’s penalty at West Ham, I felt like I had jinxed it, so the camera was left in my pocket as Abdi stepped up I was rewarded with a goal.
On the balance of play, Watford deserved to go in to the break level. We had been much the better side in the first 20 minutes and towards the end of the half, but heads had gone down after Villa took the lead and we had been poor in that period.
At half time, the U18s were given their trophy and medals for winning the Professional Development League 2 South. The presentation took place in front of the SEJ stand, so they had their backs to those of us in the Rookery and I was disappointed that there was no lap of honour.
At the start of the second half, I realized that my notes on the first period had omitted any comment on the performance of the visitors. As I looked up from writing “Villa dreadful” I saw Ayew running towards us with no Watford player anywhere near and he beat Gomes to restore the lead for the visitors. That’ll teach me for tempting fate. Villa threatened again as Ayew and Westwood broke forward before finding Gestede who shot high and wide prompting boos from the Rookery.
Flores made his first substitution just before the hour mark and, when the board went up showing that it was Paredes who would make way, there were loud cheers from the Watford fans. He was replaced by Berghuis, who had impressed at West Ham. More of the same please, Steven. Watford had a great chance to draw level again as a Jurado corner was met by a header from Deeney that was cleared off the line. At the other end, a free kick from Westwood was met with a header from Toner that went wide of the target. Berghuis tried an audacious shot from distance which was deflected, taking the pace off it and ensuring it was easy for Bunn to deal with. The 1881 had clearly lost patience with their team at this point as there were chants of “Are you Villa in disguise.” Never good to hear fans getting so negative towards their own players. Flores made a second substitution replacing Jurado with Amrabat. Watford had an opportunity to equalize as Watson released Anya who went on a tremendous run down the middle of the pitch and was clean through on goal when Cissokho took him down on the edge of the box. The Villa man was shown a red card for preventing a goal scoring opportunity. Abdi’s free kick came back off the wall and the chance came to nothing. The Villa keeper, Bunn, was booked for time wasting in an incident in which Ighalo lost patience with him delaying a kick, so decided to take it himself.
Watford threatened again as a Berghuis cross to the far post was blocked before it reached Deeney, it fell to Amrabat whose cross was headed wide by Ighalo. There were hopeful appeals for a penalty when Britos went down under a challenge as a cross from Abdi came into the box, but the referee waved play on. Frustration built further among the home fans as a series of crosses into the Villa box were met by defenders’ heads. As the game drew to a close, Watford were pushing for an equalizer as a cross from Amrabat was palmed out by Bunn and then a powerful shot from Berghuis flew just wide. The young Dutchman turned provider as the clock reached 90 minutes with a cross that was headed home by Deeney. The Rookery went wild and, as Troy had been given constant abuse from the Villa fans, he appeared to enjoy his goal celebration at their end very much indeed. The Watford fans followed the goal with a chant of “That boy, Troy Deeney, he hates the Villa.” The announcement of five minutes of added time was greeted with loud cheers from the Watford faithful and they were rewarded three minutes into injury time as Ighalo knocked the ball down to Deeney who powered it past Bunn to win the game for the home side.
Just like the game at Villa Park earlier in the season, it was an unconvincing performance from the Hornets and we were very fortunate to come away with the three points. Deeney had not looked happy during the game, but he was the hero of the day after hitting the two goals to secure the win. As at West Ham, Berghuis had put in a very lively performance when he came on. It was great to see him run at players. He didn’t always succeed in beating them, but kept the ball on enough occasions to make you want to see him do it again. The three points ensured that we remained in 12th position and were now mathematically safe from relegation. I never thought that would be the case with three games remaining in the season.
We were listening to 3 Counties in the car on the way home and, given a lot of the anti-Flores stuff on social media during the week, I found it interesting that both the presenter and the majority of those sending in messages believed that Flores should still be the Watford manager next season.
It is all down to expectations. I expected Watford to struggle this season and I suspect that my tolerance of the performances that I have seen lately is down to the fact that they are more in line with what I was expecting for this season. The fact that we have also been treated to some very entertaining football and some historic wins means that Flores and his players are still in credit as far as I am concerned.