Having thought that I had timed my arrival at the pre-match pub perfectly for opening time at 12, I found a queue outside which, fortunately, included a couple of friendly faces. Thankfully the doors were soon open and we were comfortably sat with a pint and ready to catch up after our international break. Having been warned about the walk from Stratford station to the stadium, we left plenty of time for the journey. It was very pleasant to board a nice, quiet, pretty empty train. Then, just before it was due to depart, a large group of lads boarded and treated the carriage to some Watford chants. In a lull in the singing one of our party started a rendition of Molly Malone. They didn’t join in, but a section of their group did add the song to their repertoire before we finished the seven minute journey. As we were walking along the platform to leave the station, a can of beer flew over our heads and two groups of lads squared up to each other. Sadly that wasn’t the last time that we saw trouble on the day.
I was lucky enough to attend a couple of events at the Olympic Stadium during the Summer of 2012. Having seen it as a venue for athletics, I found it hard to believe that it would function as a football stadium. I was very sad when the Hammers left Upton Park as it was a cracking place to watch football with the stands so close to the pitch and an incredible atmosphere. On arrival all went well. The entry to the Stadium went very smoothly and, in marked contrast to Upton Park, there was no queue at the food stands and plenty of room to stand in the concourse to have a drink or eat your pie. As we entered the seating area of the stadium I spotted Don Fraser, so had a chance to critique the disabled section. I must admit that I was impressed. He was sitting just behind the goal at a decent elevation and, if the evidence of the blokes standing in the area in front of him before kick-off was anything to go by, wheelchair users would have no trouble seeing past those in the stand in front of them even if they stood for the whole game. I then bumped into another friend who told me that he had a good feeling about the game. I have to say that, always the pessimist, he was feeling a lot more positive than I was. On taking our seats, I was happy that, even though we were only 8 rows up, we were behind the goal with a very decent view and were sheltered from the rain that we could see was falling on the pitch.
Team news for the Hammers was the rather disturbing (for Watford fans) return of Payet and a debut for Zaza. For the Hornets, Mazzari made four changes with Cathcart, Britos, Janmaat and Pereyra in for Kabasele, Prödl, Amrabat and Guedioura. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Kaboul, Britos; Janmaat, Capoue, Pereyra, Behrami, Holebas; Deeney and Ighalo. As the teams emerged for kick off, “Bubbles” rang out and the bubble machines were going although I suspect that they made little impression on those that were not sitting right behind them. It has to be said that any concerns about there being no atmosphere in the new ground disappeared on hearing the wall of noise coming from the stands.
The game started impressively for the home side as Antonio and Payet both had first minute shots saved by Gomes. Ighalo provided a nice distraction with a shot into the side netting, but the Hammers took the lead in the fifth minute as Antonio met a Payet corner with a header that flew past Gomes. At this point Dave’s good feeling was looking rather misguided. Janmaat almost had a nightmare start to his full debut as he turned a cross from Antonio against the post.
Watford should have drawn level as Pereyra found Ighalo in a good position, but his shot was deflected wide. Pereyra and Ighalo combined again, this time the Nigerian’s shot was saved on the line by Adrian and Behrami’s follow-up flew over the bar. The Hammers had a couple of chances to increase their lead as, first, Antonio shot just over the bar and then Lanzini put a shot just wide of the post. West Ham’s second goal came in the 32nd minute. Payet played an audacious cross, Antonio ghosted past Cathcart and planted another header past Gomes. As the West Ham fans jeered “You might as well go home,” I heard a young voice behind me sigh, “Only another hour to go.” I knew exactly how she felt. While we had had some chances in the first half hour, West Ham just looked quicker and better than we did and our defence looked as though they had just met. Imagine our surprise when the next action of note, in the 41st minute, was a lovely ball from Capoue to Ighalo who cut inside before taking a shot which beat Adrian following a deflection off Collins. Unbelievably we were level just before half time after a mix up between Collins and Adrian allowed the ball to fall to Deeney. As we were watching from low down at the other end of the ground it wasn’t until I got home that I appreciated quite how good Deeney’s strike was, but we celebrated massively all the same.
At half time every one that I spoke to had a similar reaction. A shake of the head, a rueful smile and “How are we still in this game?” The trek to the concourse at half time was ‘interesting’. Looking to my left I saw a crowd of West Ham fans on the other side of a barrier facing a group of Watford fans on our side so I had the pitiful sight of a bunch of middle aged blokes offering each other out.
As the players emerged for the second half, I had no idea where this game was going. What followed was quite remarkable. If a reaction from West Ham was expected, it didn’t materialize and Watford took the lead in the 52nd minute as Capoue chested down a cross from Pereyra before volleying the ball in off the post. This goal brought an extra special smile to my niece’s face. She is a huge fan of Capoue and had missed his two previous goals this season, so was delighted finally to see him score and there were hugs all round.
Just after the hour, Ighalo crossed for Janmaat whose shot was blocked, the clearance came back to Ighalo who cut back to Holebas who powered in from just outside the area. The celebration for this goal was a mixture of ecstasy and disbelief. But, at this stage of the game, the lead was thoroughly deserved and it was the Watford fans chanting “You might as well go home.” At this point my gaze was drawn to the upper tier where it seemed to be kicking off. Earlier in the game, there had been a scuffle among the home fans in the lower tier of the stand to our right. On this occasion, it appeared that West Ham fans were trying to get to the Watford fans sitting near them in the top tier. I could see nothing in place to enforce the segregation with only a flight of stairs and a handful of stewards between the two sets of fans, which was no deterrent for anyone who wanted to cause trouble. It looked chaotic up there and, even though extra stewards were drafted in, it was some considerable time before they were augmented by officers from the Met. Back to matters on the field, Ighalo was rewarded for his goal and assist by being given a bit of a rest as Success came on to replace him. The youngster almost made an immediate impact as he went on a lovely run before taking a shot that was blocked by Adrian.
The home side had a rare second half chance as a free kick dropped to Payet who appeared to have a sitter to hit, but his shot was blocked and his blushes spared as the flag was raised for offside. Mazzari’s second change was also to the forward line as Okaka came on to make his debut in place of Deeney. If Deeney has been looking a bit stocky this season, Okaka completely dwarfs him. His physique is positively Shittu-esque. There was a touch of class from Pereyra who went on a lovely mazy run through the box, sadly his shot was blocked as that would have been a very special goal indeed. Okaka then found the net following a Capoue corner, but our celebrations were cut short as the offside flag went up. I know I wasn’t the only one thinking that I would have preferred to be going in to the last 10 minutes with a three goal cushion. I needn’t have worried. Watford’s final substitution saw Prödl replace Kaboul in defence and the exchange was seamless. New boy Okaka had an eventful end to the game. First he received a pass from Success and unleashed a shot that was saved. Next he was booked for dissent. Finally, and most regrettably, he appeared to pull a hamstring and had to leave the field meaning that Watford played the time added on with ten men. But West Ham were a spent force at this point and Watford ran out 4-2 winners, a score that I am still looking at in disbelief even though I saw the game.
We had to keep our joy in check as we left the ground, so as not to rub it in when we met my lovely Hammer-supporting brother-in-law. But I was soon back in the pub for post-match reflections with the Watford crew and the smiles could not be suppressed.
The last hour of this game featured one of the best performances that I have seen from a Watford team. For the first half hour we looked second best and the defence struggled. Then, suddenly, it all clicked into place. The defence were organized and stood up to everything that West Ham tried. The midfield were excellent. Janmaat had looked like a liability early on, but finished superbly so Amrabat wasn’t missed. Holebas had another good game, capping his performance with a great strike. Behrami was in beast mode stopping anyone who came his way. Capoue continues to enjoy the freedom to get forward immensely and Pereyra is certainly living up to the hype. Then there was the front two. Much concern has been expressed about both Deeney and Ighalo’s start to the season. To see them both on the scoresheet with the added delight of an assist from Ighalo made me very happy indeed and their performances were assured. Not only that, but the men who were brought on to replace them late in the game both appeared to be very worthy substitutes indeed, which was very reassuring. From front to back we were excellent so I couldn’t help speculating how good this team is going to be when they actually get to know each other.
At this stage in the season we have four more points than I expected and the omens are good. Unlike last season, the new players that arrived to a fanfare are living up to that billing. We finally have strength in depth in all positions. The team is playing lovely football and sharing goals among themselves. This has the makings of a season to relish.