On Thursday, Watford held the End of Season dinner. I must say that I don’t enjoy Wembley as a venue, it feels as though you are having dinner in an aircraft hangar and the event has lost its friendly feel. On the plus side, for the first time in three years the head coach was in attendance. I managed to have a brief chat with Javi, who said what a lovely family we were at Watford. On the family theme, it was really lovely to see Rita Taylor there with her daughter and grandchildren. The youngsters were on the stage to help present the Player of the Season award which is named in honour of GT. There was no surprise when Doucouré won the award and I can confirm that he is a lovely chap. As, indeed, is Christian Kabasele, who was the Community Ambassador of the year. The Hall of Fame inductee was Tom Walley, not before time. He was joined on the evening by a number of his ‘graduates’. Robert Page and Kenny Jackett both paid warm tribute to him and his part in making them into the players/managers/men that they are. Tom’s acceptance speech was brief but heartfelt.
On Saturday was the Legends game in aid of the 25th anniversary of the Community Sports and Education Trust. It was a foul day with the rain lashing down but, as I entered the ground, I was cheered to see Tom Walley waiting for the lift to the concourse. I went up to him to say how happy I was that he had received the Hall of Fame accolade. I was rewarded with a smile, a kiss and “Football has been good to me.” I pointed out that he had been very good to football. The game ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. But it was lovely to see Lloyd Doyley, Nicky Wright, Allan Smart, Steve Palmer, Gavin Mahon, Marcus Gayle and Derek Payne gracing the Vicarage Road pitch again. The teams were managed by Luther Blissett and Kenny Jackett. Luther played a cameo at the end and ended up as the manager of the winning team.
After the Legends game, I headed up to Manchester for Sunday’s match. When I arrived at the pre-match pub there was already a couple of Northern based Hornets at ‘our’ table. The team usually travel to the ground from the hotel opposite the pub, so we waved them off from the comfort of our seats. Not that they saw us, but it is the thought that counts. Our pre-match group was honoured to be joined by Emma Saunders, Watford’s matchday announcer, who was being a fan for the day.
We left the pub in plenty of time to deal with the extensive security measures that are always in place at Old Trafford. Being aware of the restrictions, I had left my rucksack and laptop in the hotel and arrived at the ground with only my essentials. We passed through the first cordon and had our bags checked with no issues. Then we arrived at the next phalanx of stewards to be told that no bags were allowed in the ground “because of what happened in Paris last night.” So, a madman with a knife on the streets of Paris meant that middle-aged women could no longer be trusted to bring handbags into a football stadium. Mick Smithers, our Police liaison officer, was in the vicinity, so we asked whether he would mind our bags, but we were given no choice but to walk to a car park across the road to dispose of the offending items. The bag drop that had been designated for away fans was already full. We asked what we were supposed to do now and were directed to another portacabin that was barely visible in the distance. On arrival, I emptied my bag of most of its contents and transferred them to my pockets and basically left my make-up bag behind. When we arrived back at the turnstiles, there was a quick check with a wand and we were in. It would have been a lot simpler and more secure to have examined the contents of my small bag as they had no idea what was in my rather large pockets.
Due to our diversion, I arrived at my seat just as the pre-match handshakes were taking place. I then did my usual thing of getting my notebook, pen and camera ready for the game. As I retrieved things from my coat pocket, I realised that I had completely forgotten to transfer a pen from my bag and nobody else in our party had one, so I was unable to make any notes on the game, which is probably as well as it was not a game packed with incident.
Team news was that Gracia had made three changes from the Newcastle game with Gomes, Deulofeu and Richarlison coming in for Karnezis, Capoue and Deeney. So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Pereyra, Richarlison; Gray. The return of Gomes to the team meant that he would make his 100th Premier League appearance for the Hornets and would be wearing the captain’s armband as he did so. There was also much joy among the travelling fans when it was confirmed that Chalobah would be on the bench after so long out due to injury.
The first chance of the game fell to the Hornets as Romero dropped a cross from Janmaat which, for a moment, looked as though it may drift in to the goal, but there was no Watford player on hand to take advantage and the United goalie was able to recover. The first caution was earned by Rojo for a foul on Richarlison. The young Brazilian took the resultant free kick himself but sent it well over the bar. The home side had their first chance of note in the 16th minute when Sanchez received a pass from Blind, but volleyed well wide of the target. Gracia was forced into an early substitution when Kabasele ushered a ball out of play and, as he followed it, the momentum took him down the slope behind the goal and he collided with the hoardings. Christian tried to continue after receiving treatment, but soon had to be replaced by Mariappa. I was just hoping that this didn’t end his chance of being involved in the World Cup. United took the lead in the 34th minute with a goal that came out of nothing as Carrick played a ball over the top to Mata, who appeared to be in an offside position, he squared for Rashford who had a simple finish past Gomes. The Hornets should have grabbed an equaliser just before half time as Richarlison met a cross from Janmaat and headed back across goal, but Romero pulled off a terrific save to frustrate the Watford youngster. The resulting corner reached Deulofeu who tried a shot, but Romero was also equal to that effort. So we reached half time with the Hornets slightly unfortunate to be a goal down.
The first incident of note in the second half was a caution for Ashley Young after a foul on Janmaat. Sadly, following his unpleasant celebration after scoring against the Hornets at Vicarage Road, the former Watford youngster was being booed every time he touched the ball. Pereyra took the free-kick, which bounced off Mariappa and the home defence were able to clear. Soon after, Young was replaced by Luke Shaw. Gracia also made a change bringing Deeney on for Deulofeu and switching to two up front. United had a chance to increase their lead as Sanchez crossed to the back post, but the ball was too high for Mata. There was another card for the home side as McTominay was penalised for a shirt pull on Richarlison. There appeared to be a terrific chance for the Hornets as a poor clearance bounced off Hughes who found Gray, who had a great chance to finish but took one touch too many and ended up putting the ball wide. His blushes were spared as the flag was up for offside, but it was a terrible miss. There were loud cheers from the travelling Hornets as Chalobah appeared on the touchline ready to take the field, which he did in place of Gray. United then made their second substitution bringing Herrera on for Blind. With 10 minutes remaining, Watford had a terrific chance to score an equaliser as Richarlison ran into the box but, again, waited too long to take a shot and was tackled. The last half chance for the visitors came as a deep corner from Holebas was met by a header by Doucouré, but it was weak and easily gathered by Romero. With five minutes remaining, Michael Carrick, who was making his last appearance before retiring, was substituted (for Paul Pogba) to allow him to enjoy an ovation from the United fans. The Watford faithful joined in with the applause. And that was it, there were no further goals and the game finished with a narrow win for United.
At the final whistle, the Watford players applauded the crowd and Adrian Mariappa came over to give his shirt to one of the fans in the disabled area. The stewards on the pitch stepped in to stop him and it took all of his charm to persuade them that this action was not a security issue. The joy on the face of the woman who received the shirt as she held it aloft in triumph made the stewards’ action look as mean spirited as it was. It was also noticeable how few home fans were left in the ground to applaud their team’s efforts this season. I guess that finishing second in the league getting to the Cup Final isn’t worthy of celebration in this part of Manchester, nor is saying goodbye to a long serving player. So very sad, but Old Trafford seems primarily to be a tourist destination these days.
As we headed back to pick up our bags, I encountered Don Fraser, so pushed his wheelchair back to Coach 1. We proceeded in the direction of the bag drop only to find that there was a barrier in the way and a steward directing us back the way we had come. Our expressions of indignation persuaded him to let us through and, thankfully, we were soon on our way.
So it was back to the pub for the last post-match analysis of the season. It has to be said that it wasn’t a great game. The home side appeared to be playing in second gear while they looked forward to the Cup Final next week. Watford, as so often this season, put in a decent performance but, as a friend commented, were “pathologically opposed to shooting.” United did defend well, but if an early shot had been taken on a couple of occasions, Romero may have had a more difficult afternoon. It has been a very odd season. It started with some superb performances, but started petering out once Silva received the approach from Everton and, despite moments of brilliance, never regained any momentum. While 14th in the division is something that most of us would have been happy with at the start of the season, it does feel like the team has massively underachieved given the talent in the squad. Certainly the absence of Cleverley and Chalobah through injury for much of the season has had an effect on performances, but the main problem has been the lack of an effective striker and they are not easy to come by.
But, frustrating as this season has been, I will be counting the days until the fixtures come out so that I can plan next year’s adventures.
Thank you to all of you who have read my reports this season. I wish you all a wonderful Summer.