Having experienced 3 defeats before the international break, I approached this game with some trepidation. West Ham have struggled so far this season, but they have a good squad and there was concern that the appointment of David Moyes would provide the “new manager bounce” that so often occurs. There was also the worry that the speculation regarding Silva’s future could have an adverse impact on the team and there were certain fans on social media speculating about the crowd giving the coach a hard time. As so often, I despair at the mentality of certain football fans.
But, before the trip to Vicarage Road, there were serious things to deal with at the West Herts. “The game” was being played. A glorified game of snap during which the first few to match cards pick from an array of beautifully wrapped gifts placed on the table, once those are gone it is a dog-eat-dog scenario and there are various little factions who plot against each other. At the end of each round, the “winners” get to open their prizes, which are usually utter rubbish (by design) although the theme of this game was “J” which led to an inordinate number of jaffa cakes being on offer and the shocking revelation that one of our number doesn’t like jaffa cakes. I am still reeling from that news. As always, absent friends were toasted as we played. Dee and Toddy were always enthusiastic players.
When the game was done, Alice introduced me to Jeff, one of the Denver Horns, who told me that he reads this blog. It is always lovely to meet fellow Hornets and hear about their matchday experiences. Having travelled so far, we were hoping that he was in for an enjoyable afternoon.
It is the 25th anniversary of Watford’s Community and Education Trust and the club had chosen this game to celebrate. As part of the commemorations, they had invited Ann Swanson back as guest of honour. Ann had run the Junior Hornets back in the 80s and her efforts in ensuring that youngsters had a safe environment in which to watch football helped a whole generation of fans develop a love for the game, many of whom are now bringing the next generation along. While I am too old to have been part of this group, I did want to shake her hand and thank her for all that she had done. While waiting, it was lovely to hear her greet a guy with, “You’re one of my Junior Hornets.” She seemed thrilled, but the warmth of the young man’s greeting showed the great esteem in which she is held by her former charges.
Team news was that Holebas and Carrillo were making way for Mariappa and Zeegelaar, who was making his debut. So the starting line-up was Gomes, Mariappa, Kabasele, Britos; Femenía, Cleverley, Doucouré, Zeegelaar; Hughes, Richarlison; Gray.
The game had barely kicked off when there was a lengthy delay as Zeegelaar required treatment after making contact with Carroll’s elbow. He was down for a considerable time, so it was looking like possibly the shortest debut in history but, thankfully, after treatment he was fit to continue (with added nose plugs). Watford took the lead in the 11th minute, Zeegelaar’s cross led to some pinball in the box, before Hughes buried it. It was a tremendous strike and I couldn’t have been happier for him.
West Ham created a chance soon after as Carroll met a cross from Zabaleta, but Gomes was equal to the shot. Just before the half hour, Carroll had survived a couple of tackles when Richarlison appeared and took the ball off him, and was hacked down for his trouble. It was a petulant reaction and not his first infringement of the afternoon, so there was some annoyance among the Watford fans when he was only shown a yellow card. That annoyance turned to anger soon after as Britos was booked for a late tackle on Kouyaté. The fury was somewhat misplaced as Britos deserved the booking, but it did look a tad harsh in the light of Carroll’s infringements. Watford had a chance to increase their lead as Hughes played the ball out to Gray, but his cross-cum-shot from a narrow angle was easily gathered by Hart. There was a better chance soon after as a terrific shot from Richarlison was saved, the rebound reached Femenía who shot just wide of the far post. The petulance from the West Ham players wasn’t confined to Carroll as Arnautovic also reacted to being tackled by Cleverley by hacking him down and was booked. Back to the beautiful game, there followed a lovely series of passes from the Watford players with Olé ringing out around the ground until the ball reached Britos and it was “Oh dear” as he launched the ball into Row Z. The next West Ham booking went to Obiang for a trip on Hughes.
West Ham really should have equalized with 3 minutes to go to half time, as Noble played a through ball to Kouyaté, who only had Gomes to beat but, with heads already dropping in the Rookery, the Watford keeper managed to turn the shot around the post. From the corner Watford broke upfield and Femenía crossed for Hughes whose volley was over the bar. West Ham had another great chance to draw level in time added on at the end of the half, but Gomes was magnificent, first reacting brilliantly to stop a header from Arnautovic, then instinctively blocking the follow-up and catching the third attempt. Those of us standing behind the goal who witnessed the saves were just looking at each other in disbelief that he had kept the ball out of the net. Watford had a final chance to increase their lead just before half time, but Richarlison’s shot was just wide of the far post.
It had been a thoroughly entertaining half of football and, while Watford were good value for their lead, there had been a couple of golden chances for the visitors towards the end and the crowd were singing the name of Gomes in adoration.
Half time saw Ann Swanson being introduced on the pitch. She spoke warmly about her time at the club and particularly the relationships with both GT and Elton who were great advocates and supporters of the Junior Hornets. She received a tremendous ovation, which was just lovely.
Watford had a great chance to increase their lead early in the second half as Femenía crossed for Gray, but Reid got a foot in to stop the shot. At the other end a cross from Arnautovic was turned over the bar by Kouyaté. Watford threatened again as Hughes played the ball back to Doucouré who hit a cracking shot that was just wide of the target. Hughes then tried a shot himself, but it took a slight deflection off a West Ham head and was easy for Hart. Gray was the next to try his luck, but his shot was deflected for a corner. Watford should have increased their lead as Mariappa met the delivery from Hughes with a header that Hart did well to keep out, it dropped to Richarlison who was almost on the goal line, I still have no idea how he didn’t turn it in but, somehow, the ball was cleared. The young Brazilian made up for that mistake soon after as he went on a run before shooting across Hart and into the far corner. His celebration showed how much it meant to him and was almost as passionate as that of my sister, who is married to a West Ham fan. The goal certainly calmed some nerves in the home crowd and from that moment on, West Ham never looked like getting anything from the game. The first change for the visitors came on 65 minutes with Sakho replacing Carroll who went off to boos from both ends of the ground and chants of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” from his own fans.
A lovely passing move from the Hornets finished with a shot from Doucouré that was saved by Hart. The Watford fans were in a good mood at this point and thoughts turned to the man in the dugout whose name was chanted followed by a chorus of “Marco Silva, we want you to stay.” There was another long break in the game following a nasty injury to Arnautovic, who was clearly in a lot of pain clutching his arm. Thankfully, the stretcher wasn’t required and the post-match news was that he had broken a thumb, but he had to be replaced by Masuaku. West Ham had a great chance to pull one back with a low shot from Lanzini, but Kabasele was there to clear it off the line. At this point the away end vented their frustration starting with chants against Brady and Sullivan (I assume that they had started with Gold, but I missed that one) followed by “You destroyed our *** club.” I couldn’t help but sympathise, the move to Stratford seems to have ripped the soul from the club. Back on the pitch, Zeegelaar, who had had a great game, took the ball down brilliantly on the wing and put in a lovely low cross, but there was no Watford player in the box to connect. West Ham’s captain was the next to see yellow as Noble was booked for a trip on Richarlison. Silva waited until the last five minutes of normal time to make his first substitution, bringing Pereyra on for Hughes. The guy who sits next to me commented, “One magician for another,” which perfectly summed up the terrific performance from Hughes. As this change was being made, there was a signal to the bench that Femenía was unable to continue, so he was replaced by Holebas. Due to the injuries in the second half, there was 8 minutes of added time, but the only scoring chance worthy of note fell to the Hornets as Richarlison curled a shot just wide of the far post. There was just time for Carrillo, fresh from racking up a boat load of air miles travelling to Peru’s World Cup qualification games against New Zealand, to come on in place of Gray. Attention at this point turned to the TV studio adjacent to the Rookery. The sight of Ighalo having his make-up done before appearing for the post-match analysis prompted changes of “Oghalo-oh!” As he looked out smiling, the whole of the Rookery waved at him. He waved back. All rather lovely.
The final whistle went to jubilation in the stands. Watford back to winning ways and in some style. The coach and players were applauded off with special adulation directed at Gomes as he made his usual lap of the pitch. We had to reign our happiness in a little as we were meeting my brother-in-law, my sister already having received a message from her Watford-fanatic daughter telling her to “be nice to Dad.” Mark’s gracious comment was “At least my second team won.”
Back to the West Herts and it was all smiles. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable team performance with some stand out individuals. Zeegelaar had impressed greatly on his debut. Cleverley had recovered from his last minute penalty miss at Goodsion Park with an assured performance in the centre of the park. Gomes was absolutely brilliant in goal. But the most impressive showing came from Hughes. I had been thrilled when we bought him and rather sad that he seemed to have dropped into obscurity, but he was biding his time. He put in a decent showing against Everton but was absolutely brilliant in this game and the goal was a just reward. With players coming back from injury, apart from the goal keeping position, we now seem players who can slot in to any position without a loss of quality, which bodes very well for the rest of the season.
But the last comment should go to the Community Trust. They have been a massive part of the club for a long time now. From Ann Swanson’s work with the Junior Hornets in the 80s, this has grown into a huge asset for the local community. Current Director, Rob Smith, has been tireless in growing the Trust for many years and it was rather fitting that Britt Assombalonga, who was discovered at one of the Trust’s schemes, scored for Middlesbrough on Sunday. In these days when football seems to be all about money, it is great to see that the Trust is still valued at the club and the commemorative t-shirt, designed by 11 year-old Codie Snaith, which declares “We are Family” summed it up perfectly.