The first day of the season and, on arriving in Watford, it was grey and drizzly. I was at the Hornet Shop before 9:30, so it was rather bizarre to see the programme sellers and burger stands already setting up. Having bought the new home and away shirts, a woolly hat (just in case) and a Watford coffee cup, I headed to the museum to get in line for the Graham Taylor exhibition.
We were there as the doors were opened so had plenty of time to enjoy the display. It was very much a celebration of the man, with memories from other clubs, although his time at Watford was paramount. It was lovely to see everything from his coaching badges and certificates to the robes from his investiture as Freeman of the Borough. There were other lovely treats, a family photo of GT crossing the line at the London Marathon in a time of 3:21:11, plus his sponsorship form, as he was raising money for the family terrace, and his medal. The Norfolk Horns flag, signed by the stalwarts of that group, was tucked away.
My niece had come along, so was ‘treated’ to the old people reminiscing. To this end, I was delighted to spot the Terry Challis cartoon from the weekend after we beat both Spurs and Man Utd 5-1 in May 1985. Her reasonable question was if those teams were good then. Oh yes, and the cartoon still makes me smile. But the highlight was the photo of GT and Rita at Buckingham Palace when he received his OBE, which was displayed alongside the award itself. It was a lovely exhibition and so kind of Rita, Joanne and Karen to share their memories with the fans. The comment book that was available will be shared with the family, so gave us a chance to say thank you. There was an additional treat with the presence of some old Watford friends who I hadn’t seen in a while. So lovely to catch up.
So to Vicarage Road for the early kick-off. The new season ticket worked, which is always a good thing. As I entered the gangway to our seats, our usual steward wasn’t there. The new incumbent asked whether I knew where I was going and, when I said that I did, demanded to see my ticket. In the 15 years that I have had that seat, I have never been asked to show evidence. Silly, but it really irritated me.
One of the delights of the first game of the season is to catch up with our Rookery neighbours after a Summer apart. It was good to see them all present and correct.
Team news was that only one of our new signings was in the starting line-up and, given that it was our old friend Chalobah, it didn’t seem like a new face at all. The starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Chalobah, Doucouré; Amrabat, Cleverley, Pereyra; Okaka
Watford started the game brightly and created the first chance in the 5th minute when a cross from Janmaat was headed clear before Okaka could reach it. Okaka then played a through ball to Pereyra whose shot was deflected wide. Having discovered in the museum that my camera battery was dead, I decided to try out the camera on my phone as the players gathered for the corner. I was faffing trying to focus, so missed seeing Okaka connect with the delivery from Holebas to head home and open the scoring. I wasn’t too late in joining in the celebrations though. Janmaat went down injured after a quarter of an hour, nothing new there, so had to be replaced by Femenía. I had been impressed with what I had seen from the Spaniard in pre-season, so was not too concerned at this early change. The substitute’s first action was a great tackle to stop Mané advancing down the wing, he was rewarded with a foul by the Liverpool man. Watford threatened again with a cross from Amrabat, but Mignolet gathered with Okaka lurking.
Just before the half hour mark, there was some activity among the stewards who had their eye on some miscreant in the rows in front. I wondered whether they had been alerted to two blokes sitting in front who were clearly Liverpool fans. It was the ideal time to watch them, as Liverpool scored from their first chance of the game, Mané beating Gomes after a lovely passing move. The Liverpool guys didn’t react and a man and child who were sitting in the wrong seats were moved. Having been distracted for the first two goals, I am pleased to say that I was fully engaged when we regained the lead a couple of minutes after the equalizer. Doucouré, who was impressing, found Cleverley in the box, the return pass led to a bit of a scramble, but eventually fell to the Frenchman who beat Mignolet. The first booking of the game went to the visitors as Mané was cautioned for a crunching tackle on Doucouré. Liverpool had a couple of chances to draw level before half time. First as Salah broke forward and fired over the bar. Then, in time added on, when Mané met a Firmino corner with a header that flew just wide.
So we reached half time with a deserved lead. We were playing some superb football and there were smiles all around in the Rookery.
Watford were forced to make another substitution early in the second half as Pereyra pulled up and left the field to be replaced by Richarlison. I do hope that this will not lead to another long lay-off for Pereyra, but I was very interested in seeing the young Brazilian in action. While the substitute was being given the tactical talk, Liverpool attacked against the 10 men with Wijnaldum finding Salah who fired wide. The Egyptian was involved in the next key moment in the game as he broke into the Watford box, Gomes appeared to save at his feet before he took a tumble. The referee pointed to the spot. It appeared to be a very harsh penalty from our vantage point in the away end, but replays showed that the referee made the correct decision. Firmino stepped up and sent Gomes the wrong way to level the game. It went from bad to worse a couple of minutes later as Firmino ran on to a ball over the top from the Liverpool half, He lofted it over Gomes and Salah turned it in to give the visitors the lead. There was some confusion on the sidelines at this point. The board had gone up indicating that Okaka was to be replaced by Gray and Emma Saunders had announced the change, but Silva changed his mind, opting to delay the substitution while they took stock after the goal. A few minutes later the change was made and the former Burnley man became the third substitute to make his Watford debut.
At this point in the game, Liverpool were in the ascendancy and had a chance to increase their lead as Moreno tried a shot from the edge of the area that was tipped over by Gomes. From the corner, Matip struck the crossbar. Liverpool threated again from a corner, on this occasion Lovren’s shot was blocked by Gomes. Salah had a further chance to increase the lead, but shot over the bar. On the 72nd minute, the Watford faithful got to their feet to chant Graham Taylor’s name, the minute of chanting being interrupted by some oohing and aahing as Watford attacked the Liverpool box, but the ball ended up with Mignolet. With a couple of minutes to go, the Liverpool keeper was shown the yellow card for time wasting. He was to live to regret the 5 minutes that were added on. Three minutes in, Britos unleashed a shot that took a smart save from Mignolet to push it clear. He wasn’t so fortunate from the corner, as he pushed Richarlison’s shot onto the bar but Britos was on hand to turn the ball in from point blank range and send the Rookery into ecstasy. Richarlison had a chance to snatch a winner but his header, following a cross from Amrabat, was wide of the target. He was injured in the process and spent some time receiving treatment. This meant some additional added time and one last chance for the visitors but Wijnaldum’s shot was blocked and the game ended in a draw.
Well I certainly didn’t see that coming. It was a tremendous team performance from a group of players who were working their socks off. They fought for every ball and, when they were in possession, showed no little skill. Given that a number of these players have barely met, the teamwork was very pleasing indeed and bodes well for the rest of the season. Doucouré was given the Watford man of the match award for the sort of assured performance that we have come to expect of him, but a special mention has to go to Richarlison for a very impressive debut. He fought for absolutely everything and took all that was thrown at him, while displaying skill and power. He did not look like a player new to English football. It is early days but if Silva’s men can continue marrying hard work with skilful attacking play, this will be a very enjoyable season indeed. The game was summed up by comments from more than one of the fans around me, before the equalizer, that they would take a defeat as it had been thoroughly entertaining.
During the week, a friend, who is a Liverpool fan in Madrid, had asked me to answer some questions for their match preview on their website. My prediction for the day was that the trip to the museum would be the only highlight. I am very happy to have been proved so wrong.