This week, the Watford family lost someone very special. Stephen Todd, known to his football friends as Toddy, was a lifelong Watford fan. He regularly travelled to away games and was a stalwart at club events. He was an enthusiastic member of the Norfolk Hornets and a regular contributor to various fanzines over the years, where his quirky sense of humour shone through. More than that, he was one of my closest friends, someone who always added laughter to a social occasion. Sadly, he has had a number of health issues over the past year, but has bravely soldiered on and travelled to see the tremendous game at Southampton before his final appearance at last week’s defeat to Manchester City. As the news of his passing reached the club, I was very moved to see a tweet from Troy on how much he would be missed. Similar sentiments were expressed on social media by Luther, Gibbsy, Nick Cox, Ross Wilson, Dave Messenger and Jon Marks. The kind words from the great and the good were echoed by many fellow fans and this outpouring of love has bought great comfort to his family and friends. I will miss him terribly.
As is my usual practice, I booked the train to Swansea some time before the match tickets went on sale. So, when my usual e-mail to ask who wanted tickets was met with a chorus of ‘no thanks’, I began to regret booking the early train as this meant that I would be spending rather a long time sitting alone in a pub with my thoughts. I have to say that the pre-match pub was pleasant and welcoming and I quite enjoyed my solitary pints before the walk to the ground. I was feeling a little empty as I entered the stadium, but it wasn’t long before I encountered familiar faces and was able to share happy memories of Toddy and his exploits.
Team news was that Silva had made two changes from the heavy defeat to City with Femenía and Capoue replacing Janmaat and Chalobah, who had picked up an injury in training. So the starting line-up was Gomes, Femenía, Mariappa, Kabasele, Holebas; Doucouré, Cleverley; Carrillo, Capoue, Richarlison; Gray. Swansea’s Watford connection was in the dug out in the form of Hornet legend Nigel Gibbs.
After the heavy defeat last week, there was a fear that the early season spirit may have been crushed, but the concerns were eased as Watford started brilliantly and had an early chance to open the scoring as Doucouré played a through ball to Femenía, he crossed for Gray whose shot was deflected just wide. The visitors took the lead in the 13th minute as the ball broke to Gray, he played it out to Carrillo whose cross evaded the Swansea defence and found its way back to the former Burnley man who blasted home for the first goal of his Watford career. It was great to see Andre get off the mark at last. Not so great was the fact that the goal was celebrated with a flare. There is an irony in the fact that it is always at the grounds at which the searches are most stringent (the steward who searched me could feel what I had for breakfast) that flares are smuggled in. Swansea nearly equalized almost immediately from their first chance of the game as a corner was almost poked home by Fernandez, but Gomes made the block to preserve the lead. Watford threatened again, as Holebas played a brilliant pass down the touchline to Richarlison who crossed for Capoue who belted a shot from distance just wide of the near post. At the other end, Bony met a free kick from Carroll with a header that flew just wide of the target.
Carrillo then went on a fantastic run before putting in a cross that was half cleared to Femenía, his volley was parried by Fabianski, the ball dropped to Richarlison, who crossed back for Carrillo to tap the ball home. Sadly, and correctly, the celebrations in the away end were curtailed by the linesman’s flag. The first booking of the game came as Capoue slid into a tackle, he was hurt in the process and, to add insult to injury, the referee showed him the yellow card. Swansea’s next half chance came as a looping cross from Naughton was pulled out of the air by Gomes. Then Olsson broke into the box, Mariappa tripped as he went to make the tackle, so the cross reached Bony who could only direct a soft shot straight at Gomes. Watford had a great chance to increase their lead as a poor back pass was intercepted by Gray, who advanced into the box, but the keeper, Fabianski, narrowed the angle and the shot drifted across the face of the goal. Swansea had another chance to draw level from a free kick that was headed wide by Bony. The last action of the half was a caution for Doucouré for pulling Fer back as he tried to escape. So Watford went into the break a goal to the good. The visitors had been brilliant for the first half hour, playing the ball around and showing some sublime moments of skill, Swansea couldn’t get near us. But I was concerned that we hadn’t made more of our chances and the flurry of activity from the home side towards the end of the half clearly demonstrated that the game was far from over.
Both sides made substitutions at the break with Abraham and Mesa replacing van der Hoorn and Clucas for Swansea. For the visitors, Marco Silva gave Wagué his first appearance in place of Capoue, a defender for a midfielder.
The change of formation benefitted the home side, who started the second half as they had finished the first. They had an early chance to draw level as Fer headed over from a Carroll corner. The equaliser came in the next move as Watford failed to clear a ball into the box allowing Bony to shoot, the strike was stopped by Gomes, who appeared to have it under control, but it spilled to Abraham who finished from close range, much to the frustration of the Watford keeper. The home side threatened again as a cross reached Abraham, who was about to shoot from close range when Mariappa made a brilliant saving tackle. Watford’s first real attack of the second half came as Richarlison made a brilliant run into the box which deserved a better finish than him slipping before he could shoot. Silva made a second substitution with 15 minutes to go, bringing Pereyra on for Carrillo. Watford’s improved showing continued as a cross from Cleverley was met by a lovely header from Gray that was deflected wide.
Nerves were jangling in the away end as Mariappa was penalised for what looked like a good tackle on the edge of the box. Our vantage point at the opposite end of the ground was such that we could visualize the perfect shot for the home side to take the lead. Instead, Carroll directed the free kick into the wall and we breathed again. The first caution for the home side came as Bony was booked for a foul on Holebas. That was the Swansea man’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Sanches. Watford’s last change came at the same time, as Deeney came on for Gray. The Watford captain made an immediate impact as Pereyra crossed for Doucouré, who played the ball back to Deeney, but Fabianski was equal to the shot. Watford were to snatch all three points in the last minute of the game as a misplaced Swansea pass was picked up by Richarlison, who bore down on Fabianski. With only the keeper to beat, you worried that the Brazilian had too much time to think, but his shot went in off the crossbar sending the travelling Hornets into raptures and the home fans towards the exits. The scorer ripped his shirt off to celebrate and was booked for his trouble, but it was worth the card to see the passion. The fourth official indicated five minutes of added time, but there was no further excitement and the Hornets secured all three points.
There were loud celebrations at the final whistle. Watford had started the game superbly, but once Swansea started closing us down and denying us space, we started to struggle. During that period, we also seemed to stand back and let Swansea play. In the last 15 minutes, we started reasserting ourselves. The tenacious tackling was back and it unnerved the opposition players causing them to make mistakes. Going forward, we were taking more time to pick passes, and stopped playing the aimless balls that had been getting us into trouble. If I’m honest, a draw would have been a fair result, and winning a point away at a rival has got to be a positive thing. But it was a measure of the spirit of this team that they kept battling for the three points. I have to pay tribute to Deeney here as his cameo showed the strength and battling spirit that he brings to the team. As is usual, Troy was the last to come and applaud the fans and, after his kindness in paying tribute to Toddy this week, I sang his name even louder and prouder than I usually do.
As I waited for my train, I picked up a voicemail from a friend who’d been listening to Three Counties and had heard Jon Marks mention that we were one short today and how much Toddy would be missed. That epitomised what I will take from this week. The Premier League and the clubs that make it up have become so corporate that it is apparent that the fans who go to matches week-in, week-out don’t matter any more. But the actions of the people in and around Watford Football Club this week have shown that, in our little corner of Hertfordshire, they still have time to show that they care. That is why I am especially proud to be a Watford fan this week.
That win was for you, Toddy. Sleep well, dear friend, you will be greatly missed.