My niece was unwell last week, so was home from university for a few days to recuperate. She decided to make a trip to St Albans and found herself captured on Heurelho Gomes’ Instagram live. A cuddle from both Richarlison and Gomes certainly helped hasten her recovery, the photos with them were gorgeous and made her aunt smile. I don’t have a photo with Richarlison yet!
The evening kick-off on Saturday meant that I was arriving in the West Herts at the time that I am usually leaving for the ground. An odd and unsettling feeling, but the other Watford fans in the bar reassured me that I hadn’t misunderstood the kick-off time. Given the two away games and the international break, this was the first home game since Toddy passed away, so it was a sombre crowd that gathered. There was a huge contingent of Norfolk Horns in attendance and Toddy’s son, Chris, came along, which was just lovely. I doubt he has ever been hugged so much before. Glasses were raised, happy memories exchanged and there was a determination to sing our hearts out for Toddy as well as the lads.
Team news was three changes with Britos, Pereyra and Gray coming in for Capoue, Carrillo and Deeney. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kabasele, Mariappa, Britos; Femenía, Doucouré, Cleverley, Holebas; Pereyra, Gray, Richarlison. A change in formation to 3-4-3. The Watford connection at Arsenal came in the shape of former loanee, Hector Bellerin.
We arrived in the Rookery to find that the large flag was already in place. It certainly looked magnificent in the photos. Well done, yet again, to the 1881 for a fantastic display.
The first action of the game anywhere near the goal came as an Arsenal cross was missed by the head of Lacazette before being headed clear. At the other end a cut back from Richarlison was blocked by Mertesacker before it reached Gray. A better chance for the Hornets came as Holebas found Doucouré on the left, he delivered a decent cross that was headed just wide by Pereyra. Twenty minutes into the game, there was more action in the stands than on the pitch as it appeared to kick off for the second time in the Rookery, presumably due to the presence of away fans in the home stand. I hoped that the Arsenal fan who was sitting next to me would get the message about making his allegiance obvious. Back on the pitch, Femenía crossed for Richarlison, but the ball was too far in front of the Brazilian and he was unable to apply the finish. Then Richarlison got his head to a ball in the midfield before racing towards the penalty area, but Bellerin was able to get back to stop him from shooting.
Arsenal’s first goal attempt came just before the half hour as Elneny tried a shot from distance that flew just over the bar. Then Welbeck received the ball in the box in a dangerous position, but was stopped by a terrific block from Holebas. The visitors came closer as Iwobi tried a curling shot, but Gomes was equal to it. At this point the bloke behind us, who spends 90 minutes loudly spouting drivel, commented, “You’ve got to be more intelligent.” Oh, the irony! Watford threatened as a cross was met by Richarlison, but the header was poor and flew wide. Some good work from Holebas led to a corner, the delivery from Xhaka was met by Mertesacker who was allowed a free header which he hit past Gomes to put the visitors in the lead. Arsenal had their tails up now as Xhaka tried a shot that was blocked, Bellerin shot wide from the follow-up. Xhaka threatened again, but this time his shot was caught by Gomes. In time added on at the end of the half, Pereyra crossed for Richarlison, he crossed back in to the box, but Cech gathered.
It had been a fairly dull first half, the goal being the only shot on target. Arsenal were slightly fortunate to have the lead, but had made the most of their chance from a set piece.
Watford started the second half well and Richarlison was the first to threaten as he cut in from the left and curled a shot just wide of the target. A lovely ball over the top from Cleverley to Gray deserved more than to be cut out by Mertesacker. A cross from Holebas had to be tipped wide by Cech as Doucouré was challenging. Wenger made the first personnel change on the hour, bringing Özil on for Welbeck. There were shouts from the Rookery for a penalty as there appeared to be a handball in the box, but the referee blew up for an earlier free kick. Silva then made a tactical change bringing Deeney and Carrillo on for Gray and Mariappa, who had been excellent yet again, and changing to 4 at the back. Arsenal had a great chance of a second goal as a shot from Iwobi was flying in until Gomes made a fingertip save to keep it out. Arsenal’s second change saw Giroud come on in place of Lacazette. Özil really should have scored a second for the visitors as he found himself in space with only Gomes to beat, but the Watford keeper kept him out. At the other end, Richarlison broke into the box where he was tripped by Bellerin and the referee pointed to the spot. My Arsenal-supporting neighbour didn’t do himself any favours at this point by indicating that he thought it was a dive. I may have made him feel less than welcome. Deeney stepped up, sent Cech the wrong way and levelled the scores.
Watford had a great chance for a second soon after as Richarlison broke into the box again, but his shot hit the side netting. A dangerous looking Arsenal attack was stopped by Britos who calmly came away with the ball. Silva made his final change as Pereyra, who looked exhausted, was replaced by Capoue. The Frenchman was soon in action with a shot that came off the head of Mertesacker and rebounded off the post. The last substitution for the visitors saw Holding replace Koscielny. Richarlison had another decent chance as he received a throw from Holebas, turned and volleyed over the bar. Richarlison then found Carrillo whose shot was also too high. A rare second half chance for Arsenal came from a corner, Britos headed the ball clear but only as far as Monreal who, thankfully, shot over the bar. But the momentum was with the home side and when the fourth official indicated 4 minutes of time added on, the Vicarage Road faithful roared their encouragement. The winner wasn’t pretty, but who cares. There was a bit of pinball in the box as a series of shots were blocked before the ball fell to Cleverley who powered it into the roof of the net causing total pandemonium in the Rookery. There were screams and hugs and smiles. The Arsenal fan redeemed himself as he said that we deserved it as we’d been the better team in the second half. The visitors had a chance to grab a point as a cross from Özil was met by the head of Giroud, but Gomes gathered safely and the final whistle went to confirm the win for the Hornets.
There were joyous scenes at the final whistle. Phones were out with the Premier League table displayed showing Watford in the heady heights of fourth. There were breathless discussions, heads shaking and “How good was that?” The people that sit around us have been there for more years than I care to remember and we have suffered some very bad times together, so it is lovely to see all these people smiling and enjoying the football as much as we are.
We were being driven home by an Arsenal fan, who did his best to bring us down by telling us that the television verdict was that Richarlison had dived and could well face a retrospective ban. I have to say that hadn’t been my view from behind the goal and the footage on Match of the Day certainly appeared to show contact. It may have been a soft penalty, but it seemed legitimate. When we arrived back at my sister’s she told us that Troy had given his shirt to a little lad who looked absolutely delighted (I have seen the footage on Twitter and the boy and his Dad couldn’t have looked happier). We then listened in interest as Troy spoke with great honesty and insight about the game and his career. I was highly amused to hear that his son, Myles, had texted that he hated him after scoring against his team, Arsenal.
It was a magnificent performance. Yet another last minute goal, the third in successive games, underlines the resilience of this team. The football is a joy to watch and the players are all working as a team. It is hard to pick players out, but Cleverley has been a rock for weeks now and it was lovely to see him get a goal to crown an impressive performance. Deeney also deserves praise. He could have sulked being left out of the team, but he came on and made a difference, Arsenal found his physical presence hard to cope with and he wasn’t going to miss that penalty.
After we lost to Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final in 2007, I was invited on to Radio Five for a programme that featured Rogan Taylor, on which I bemoaned the fact that the young Watford fans of today would never experience the highs that I had following the Watford team in the early 80s. It turns out that I was wrong and I couldn’t be happier.