With the game kicking off at 5:30pm and it being the last day of the Graham Taylor exhibition at the museum, there was no question about how I would start my afternoon in Watford. My sister, Rose, joined me and we spent a lovely hour looking at the exhibits and reminiscing. There were a couple of new additions since my previous visit, including a beautiful painting/collage by Terry Challis, which was well worth the repeat visit all on its own. Rose had not seen the exhibition before, so dutifully went around with the list of exhibits ticking them off. We also had the added unexpected pleasure of Sarah Priestley being on hand to talk us through the collection and her lovely meetings with Rita while putting it together. Apparently, Rita has visited on a few occasions and had fans chatting to her about their memories of Graham before they realised who they were talking to. I have to say that brought a tear to all of our eyes.
As we walked to the West Herts, we encountered a group of Everton fans piling off a coach at the traffic lights at the junction of Vicarage Road so that they could visit the Oddfellows. When one started a chorus of “Hi ho Silva lining”, I remembered that this was a grudge match. When we met up with our pre-match crew, Elaine was there without her Everton-supporting husband in tow. “He’s banned. He couldn’t get a ticket in the away end and I wouldn’t give him his Fan ID.” Brilliant!
The main talking point surrounding the Watford team selection focused on the goalkeeping position. With Gomes back from injury would Gracia grant him an immediate return to the starting XI or keep faith with Karnezis who has been performing well and has certainly overcome the doubts raised by his performance when he came on as substitute at Goodison Park? When the team was announced, Karnezis was indeed retained, Gracia’s only change was to bring in Pereyra for Zeegelaar. So, the starting line-up was Karnezis; Janmaat, Mariappa, Prödl, Holebas; Doucouré, Capoue; Deulofeu, Pereyra, Richarlison; Deeney. I must say that I was very pleased indeed to see Femenía named among the substitutes. We have missed him.
Despite the forecast of bitter cold, I had left home without a scarf. I agonised about buying a new one as the scarf that I wore at Goodison Park had never been seen at a game before and we all know what happened that afternoon. But it was far too cold to do without, so I took the risk.
Before kick-off, the 1881 launched streamers into the Rookery. With the flags also out in force I am sure that it was a great spectacle for those watching on television.
The first half-chance of the game came from an Everton free-kick which fell for Niasse, who failed to connect and the chance was lost. Watford’s first chance came from a corner which fell to Doucouré whose shot was way off target. Everton threatened again as Niasse tried to sneak the ball in from a narrow angle, but Karnezis was alert and blocked the attempt. The next chance for the visitors fell to Sigurdsson, but his shot was soft and straight at Karnezis. There were howls for a yellow/red card as Keane put in a rather robust challenge on Doucouré, but the referee waved play on. Than a dangerous looking cross from the visitors was dealt with by a wonderful header from Mariappa. Watford should have done better after launching a dangerous looking break, but Deulofeu’s shot was blocked and Capoue’s follow-up was high and wide. And that was it for the first half. It had been a remarkably dull game with most of the excitement of the first half deriving from having to fight off streamers that had detached themselves from the roof.
At half time, Academy Day at Vicarage Road was marked with the under 9s being put through their paces before parading around the ground. We also had Under 23 player Andrew Eleftheriou talking about his progression through the academy and stressing the need for hard work.
The second half started brightly and there was an early chance for the Hornets as a corner reached Prödl, but his header was over the target. There was danger from the visitors as a cross from Walcott found Keane unmarked, but his header flew wide, much to my relief. Given some of the tackles that had passed without caution in the first half, it was a little surprising that the first card of the game went to Capoue for a challenge on Walcott that was clumsy rather than malicious. Watford had a decent chance to open the scoring as a lovely cross from Pereyra was met by the head of Deeney, but Pickford was able to gather. Just before the hour mark, Gracia made his first changes as Pereyra and Richarlison made way for Okaka and Femenía. At the same time, Tosun replaced Niasse for the visitors. I must admit that I can’t help but feel sad when Richarlison is replaced, but it was immediately apparent that the substitutes made a difference. On a day when we were celebrating the return from injury of a couple of players, it was frustrating to see Deulofeu go down needing treatment. He came back on, but his first attempt at a run resulted in him dropping to the ground again and he had to be replaced by Carrillo, who is now a bottle blond.
The first caution for Everton was earned by Gueye who took down Okaka as he tried to break. The next goal chance fell to Rooney, who tried a volley from the edge of the box, thankfully he didn’t make a good contact and the ball flew over the target. This was followed by a lovely move from the Hornets which finished with a cross from Okaka that went begging. Soon after, a cross from Femenía was cleared only as far as Capoue, but his shot was off target. Then a clearance from Pickford hit Deeney and rebounded to Femenía whose shot needed a decent save from the Everton keeper to keep it out. But the Hornets were not to be denied as Femenía broke forward and fed Okaka who crossed for Deeney who powered an absolute beast of a shot past Pickford. It was one of those moments when I love sitting behind the goal as that ball was coming straight for us as we rose as one to celebrate. Allardyce immediately made a couple of changes replacing Rooney and Sigurdsson with Calvert-Lewin and Bolasie. But it was Watford who continued to attack as Holebas went on a terrific run up the wing, he played in Okaka who beat a defender before shooting but Pickford was able to make the save. As the clock ticked down, the Hornets were looking to keep the ball in the corner, but this is always a risky tactic and, needless to say, the visitors launched one last attack and won a corner. I heard “Here we go,” from behind me which matched my thoughts and fears exactly. Pickford went up to join the attack and there was an almighty scramble in the Watford box and, as Karnezis dropped to make a save, I thought the ball had gone in, so was mightily relieved when I realised that the Watford keeper had smothered the ball and the three points had gone to the Hornets.
There was an almighty roar at the final whistle and much celebration as the players did their lap of honour. As always, Deeney was the last to reach the Rookery and was given a well-deserved hero’s welcome. We left the ground with smiles on our faces and Elton’s “I guess that’s why They Call it the Blues” ringing in our ears!
The post match consensus was that it had been a terrible game, but a great three points. Watford ended the day in 10th place (back in the top half) and, while we are only 6 points off the relegation zone, you have to think that the win has ensured safety for this season. It was a match of little quality, but Watford made the majority of the chances that there were and just about deserved the win based on the second half performance. I blow hot and cold with Okaka, but he was`excellent, making forward moves when many of his team mates were happy to pass sideways and backwards. He provided the assist for Deeney, as well as nearly scoring a second. It was also wonderful to see Femenía back on the pitch. He certainly showed why we have missed him.
With West Brom the visitors next week, I have that sinking feeling about a banana skin, but there is certainly a new spirit around the club, so I hope that the players show what they can do. Another three points will certainly calm a lot of nerves and allow us to enjoy the end of the season.