A month into a new job, I don’t have many regular meetings but one that I do have is on Tuesday from 5 to 6pm. As the meeting came to a close, I was itching to get away. When the request was made for any questions, the response of one of my colleagues that she had one immediately took her off my Christmas card list. As soon as I was able, I made a rapid exit and was at Euston in time for the 18:30. With a brief stop to check in to my hotel, I made a beeline for the ground. As I reached the Rookery, it was lovely to see Gifton Noel-Williams outside chatting to someone. After entering through the turnstiles, I found that the concourse was deserted. In the stand, my family were in their seats but there were not many others there. Then I heard Tim on the tannoy announce that it was 25 minutes to kick-off. No wonder the place was so empty, I was ridiculously early … and I was going to have to watch this game sober, not a prospect I was relishing. My early arrival did mean that I got to see the warm-up. The notice on the big screen warning spectators to look out for balls flying into the crowd didn’t prevent a guy in the front of the stand being hit by an errant shot from Capoue. The Frenchman leaped into the stand in order to apologise. This had quite an effect on my niece, who is a big fan and came over all unnecessary, “I wish he’d hit me.” Another off-pitch distraction came by way of my sister’s niece, who is studying for a degree in football broadcasting. She had enquired about opportunities to gain experience at Watford and had been invited to shadow the media team for this game. She was thrilled, but I think her aunt(s) were even more excited than she was.
Team news was that Mazzarri had made two changes restoring Deeney and Prödl, both of whom had fitness problems on Saturday, to the starting line-up in place of Okaka and Janmaat. So the starting XI was Gomes; Cathcart, Prödl, Britos, Holebas; Doucouré, Cleverley, Capoue; Niang, Amrabat; Deeney. A surprise name on the bench was 18 year-old midfielder, Dion Pereira. As the opposition team was read out, the loud cheers for Ben Foster were followed by equally loud boos for Allan Nyom. I missed the visit to West Brom this season, so hadn’t witnessed the incidents that so incensed the travelling fans on that day. Even so, the reception seemed rather harsh for a player of whom I have fond memories.
The visitors had a great chance to open the scoring in the sixth minute as Chadli ran on to a through ball and broke into the box, Gomes blocked his initial shot but the West Brom man recovered the ball and looked to have an open goal to aim at, but the angle was too narrow and his shot drifted harmlessly across the goal. It was the home side who took the lead on 13 minutes with a shot from distance from Niang that he curled past Foster into the far corner. Words cannot do the strike justice, it truly was a thing of beauty and there were no complaints that the replays on the big screen continued until after the restart.
Niang impressed again, showing great resolve as, despite being tripped and lying on the ground, he managed to get a touch to direct the ball to Amrabat whose low cross was just too far in front of Deeney for him to apply the finish. Niang had another great chance soon after, but this time he volleyed the ball over the target, so the guy in charge of the big screen just showed another replay of his goal. At the other end, Robson-Kanu met a cross from Chadli with a header that flew wide of the target. Watford’s next chance came as Amrabat put in a lovely cross that was cleared for a corner with Deeney challenging. For the Baggies, Chris Brunt really should have done better as the ball came to him in the box, but it bounced down off his chest and Gomes gathered before he could get it under control. Britos earned the first booking of the game after giving the ball away to McClean, he reacted by taking his opponent down. As the wall was constructed for the free kick, it seemed that every player apart from the goalkeepers and the taker were involved. Chadli stepped up and fired over the wall, hitting the outside of the post. The first card for West Brom came soon after as Robson-Kanu fouled Holebas. Jose took the set piece himself, delivering a lovely ball into the box but, again, no Watford player was able to get the decisive touch. Just before half time, Prödl appeared to strain his midriff. After receiving treatment, I was hoping that he would persevere until half time, but he soon indicated to the bench that he couldn’t continue and was replaced with Janmaat. As the half came to an end, there were a number of niggly fouls from the visitors which culminated in McClean earning a yellow card for standing on Holebas’s heel. The half time whistle was greeted with boos from the Rookery but, on this occasion, they were directed at the opposition, who can only be described as classic Pulis. In contrast, the Hornets had been terrific playing some of the best football we have seen this season. And that goal ….
As Foster took his place in front of the Rookery for the second half, he was given a very warm reception, which he acknowledged. The visitors made a half time substitution with McLean making way for Phillips, presumably as his antics at the end of the first half suggested that he was at high risk of being sent off. The second period started perfectly for the Hornets as a lovely pass over the top from Niang reached Deeney, who had two defenders on his case but, as Foster came out to meet him, somehow he managed to connect with the ball and send it into the net. It was a goal as scrappy as Niang’s had been exquisite, but they all count and the celebrations were mighty. Chadli had a decent chance to reduce the deficit for the visitors, but turned his shot wide of the near post. At the other end, a misplaced clearance went straight to Niang, who advanced and tried a shot that was blocked. The Hornets threatened again as Amrabat played the ball out to Janmaat, who put in a lovely cross, but neither Deeney nor Niang was able to connect. On 65 minutes, there was a tussle between Britos and Rondon just outside the Watford box. The West Brom man went down very easily sparking fury in the home crowd as the Uruguayan was shown a second yellow and sent off.
For the second game running, Amrabat was substituted after a terrific showing. This time he made way for Mariappa making his first Premier League appearance since his return to Vicarage Road. Any concerns that young Ady might be rusty due to his lack of game time disappeared with his first involvement as he met a ball into the Watford box with a confident clearing header. West Brom had a decent chance to get back into the game as the evil Rondon met a cross from Morrison, but his header was just over the bar. Success was given his customary ten minutes on the pitch as replacement for Niang whose departure gave the guy running the big screen an excuse to show his goal yet again. Following the sending off, the Hornets had spent most of the time in their own half, but it had been a sterling rearguard effort with the Baggies rarely threatening the goal. The effort off the pitch had been equally impressive as the fans in each of the stands were on their feet singing their hearts out for the lads. As the clock reached 90 minutes, there was little chance of the Hornets getting anything other than a win, but the clean sheet became of paramount importance. So hearts were in mouths in time added on as a cross reached Nyom at the far post, thankfully his shot rebounded off a team mate to safety. The former Watford man had another chance to reduce the deficit but, despite having two shots, he couldn’t make the breakthrough as the first was blocked and the second saved by Gomes. The visitors had one final chance and I punched the air when Morrison put his shot into the Family Stand.
At the final whistle, there were great celebrations and hugs in the Rookery and it was lovely to see the players gathering to do a proper lap of honour, enjoying the adulation of the fans. This had been a truly impressive performance against a decent team who are very adept at stopping other teams playing. Niang put in a performance showcasing what he can really do and was a joy to watch. Doucouré was man of the match for an impressive turn running the show in midfield. Special mention also to Adrian Mariappa, who could be forgiven for struggling when drafted in to a ten man team after so long without a game, but he was excellent.
When Britos was sent off, it seemed disastrous. But it resulted in a resilient performance from the players and a passionate reaction from the fans, which is always better when played under the lights.
Before the game last Saturday, there was a genuine fear that we could be pulled into a relegation battle. Three days and six points later we are feeling comfortable in 9th position in the table and Walter Mazzarri is a football genius. It’s a funny old game.