When the Middlesbrough game was moved to Sunday lunchtime for television, transport options were checked only to find that the first train to leave London would arrive in Middlesbrough less than half an hour before kick-off. That would be cutting it a little too fine for my nerves, so I decided to spend the weekend in Durham. I was delighted to find out that a couple of friends had made independent arrangements to do the same. When news spread that we had arranged to meet up on Saturday evening for a curry, our party grew so our pre-match gathering started rather earlier than usual.
The original plan for Sunday morning had been to get a train to Middlesbrough but this was changed when transport ninja, Richard, discovered the existence of the X12 bus which provided an option that was both quicker and cheaper than the train. As we waited for the bus, we were joined by a quartet of Durham students wearing Watford shirts, which was rather lovely. As our journey progressed, the rain started and, when we emerged from the bus station, there was a local putting up his hood who was grumbling about the weather and commented to us, “It’s grim up North.”
Our pre-match gathering was at the notorious Doctor Brown’s. Apparently the place is under new management, so the DJ playing the ear-splitting music and running the quiz was no longer in place. There had even been a suggestion that it was now a gastropub, but that was certainly not in evidence and the pub was as ordinary and friendly as it had been on all previous visits.
On arrival at the stadium we were greeted by what must be some of the nicest stewards in the league. On opening up my stuffed rucksack, I was asked whether I had any cans or bottles. A perfunctory glance, a smile and “I trust you” and I was in the ground. I then headed for the Ladies which was actually in a part of the concourse populated by the home fans, with only a metal barrier to separate the fans along with a lovely steward who was directing us in.
Team news was that Mazzarri had made two changes with Britos and Success replacing Zúñiga and Ighalo. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Amrabat, Capoue, Behrami, Holebas; Pereyra, Success with Deeney on his own up front. A lot of Watford fans had been calling for the introduction of Success after his tremendous performances against Burnley and Bournemouth, so it would be very interesting to see whether he was as impressive over 90 minutes as he was as an impact substitute.
Both teams had an early chance, first the Hornets as Deeney got into the box but was stopped when the ball was taken off his feet. Then a shot from Downing that flew well over the bar. There was a nervous moment for the Hornets soon afterwards as Kaboul lost the ball allowing Ramirez to play a one-two with Negredo before shooting just wide of the far post. The first booking of the game came after 20 minutes as Barragán was cautioned for a foul on Success. The card was deserved, but I was a little perturbed that Success rolled over at least one time more than was strictly necessary. Boro were calling for a penalty when Negredo went down in the box, but the referee waved away his appeals which looked a little fortunate for the Hornets at the time. A minute later there was a further penalty appeal, this time for hand ball, but, again, nothing was given and the ball fell to Downing who shot wide of the near post. At the other end there was a chance for the visitors as a Holebas free kick was met by a defensive header from Negredo which looked as though it may test Valdés in the Boro goal but flew just wide. Soon after, Deeney met a Capoue cross with a wild volley that was well wide of the target. I’m sure he was very grateful that the flag was already up for offside. At the other end, the home side had a great chance to open the scoring with a shot from distance by Gibson that was just wide. Barragán fouled Success again prompting the travelling Hornets to shout for his dismissal but, after a long lecture, he was sent on his way without a card being shown.
The inconsistency of Mr East’s decision making was shown rather starkly soon after as Stuani was booked for a very similar foul on Pereyra. Between the bookings there was a volley from Negredo that was easily gathered by Gomes, the first save by either keeper. Ramirez was then cautioned for an off the ball foul on Behrami. So we reached half time goalless after a very dull half of football which must have been torture for the fans who had been up in the early hours of the morning to travel up from Watford.
Just after half time, Negredo went down in the box again and, again, the referee was having none of it and any sympathy I had had the first time that he went down had disappeared. Forshaw should have done a lot better with a shot following a cut back, but he hit it straight at Gomes who had an easy catch. Success went on a great run before falling down as soon as he got into the box. In my frustration, I was berating him for not crossing before he ran into the defender when the ball fell to Holebas who unleashed a cracking shot to put the visitors into the lead. It seemed a bit unfair on the home side that Watford should take the lead from their first shot on target, but it was the first time in the game that either keeper had been really tested.
The first caution of the game for the visitors went to Amrabat for a foul on Friend. Some poor defending on Watford’s left allowed Friend to put in a dangerous cross, but Gomes wasn’t troubled by the resulting header from Negredo. There was a rash of substitutions with 20 minutes to go as Ayala and Traoré replaced Stuani and Barragán for the home side and Zúñiga came on for Amrabat for the visitors. With 15 minutes to go, there was a lovely passing move down the pitch from the Hornets which finished with a powerful shot from Success which was straight at the keeper but much the best effort of the game apart from the goal. During a break in the game for Britos to get some treatment, the home crowd started up a chant of “We’ve had some sh*t refs, you are the worst,” which garnered laughter and applause from the Watford fans. It appeared that Watson and Ighalo were being readied for a substitution, but Britos couldn’t continue and limped off to be replaced by Kabasele. Soon after Watson did make an appearance coming on in place of Success, who was loudly booed by the home fans for his theatrics during the game. I would have had a modicum of sympathy had their guys not been dropping like flies throughout the game. Although, while Isaac was much sinned against, he does go down a little too easily and dramatically, which is incredibly irritating as he would make more impact if he stayed on his feet. Boro also made a change with Rhodes coming on for De Roon.
As the clock reached 90 minutes, a cross from Traoré was plucked out of the air by Gomes. The fourth official held up the board indicating 6 minutes of added time. The home side had one final chance half way through time added on, but it was a wild shot that flew wide and prompted the home fans to stream out in numbers. They didn’t miss anything and the game ended with the Hornets winning thanks to the one moment of quality in the game. After the final whistle, there was a long heated discussion between Holebas and Capoue that only finished when Deeney came over stepped between them and hugged them both.
On the way out, the lovely steward who had been the meet and greet on the way to the Ladies wished us all a safe journey home. We repaired back to Doctor Brown’s to while away the time before our train home and discuss the game. Given the post-match complaints from the Boro manager it was pleasing that the fan who initiated a conversation with me in the pub congratulated us on the win. I commented that it had been a terrible game. “It was never going to be any good, but well done.”
The main positive from the game was that we had achieved our first clean sheet of the season, although a lot of that was down to how poor Middlesbrough were in front of goal. They had most of the possession and more goal chances but Gomes didn’t have to make a save worthy of the name. Holebas put in a good performance crowned by a superb goal. The performance of Success was a bit of a curate’s egg. He was lively and causing the Middlesbrough defence some problems but seemed to run into players and lose the ball when an early cross would have been a better choice. Poor Troy was isolated up front and didn’t see much of the ball at all. But a win when you are not playing well isn’t to be sniffed at and our current mid table position is to be treasured.