I had started a cold on Friday, so was very grateful that the last Saturday before Christmas was mild and sunny, absolutely gorgeous. I made my way to the designated pre-game pub to find Pete and Mike had made themselves comfortable on a sofa in the corner. Even better when one of them went and bought me a beer. Mike had not enjoyed his first pint so had opted to try something else, but got more than he bargained for when it turned out that he had bought a packet of smokey bacon crisps in liquid form. I was sceptical when he described the beer, but one sip confirmed the truth of his taste test. My brother-in-law is a West Ham season ticket holder, so joined my sister and I for the pre-match drinks if not for the game. Being a local, he was a great help on the way to the ground, sending us on what appeared to be a huge detour but actually meant that the queue to get through security was very small. I have to say that the young man who ‘searched’ me only glanced in my bag and waved his security wand in my general direction before letting me through. Clearly I didn’t look likely to be smuggling anything in.
Team news was that Gracia had made one change with Capoue returning from suspension in place of Quina. A slightly surprising move as the lad had played exceptionally well and most thought that Sema would have made way, although this would have meant a change in formation that Gracia clearly didn’t want. So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Sema, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deeney and Deulofeu.
The home side had an excellent early chance which was snuffed out as Kabasele intervened to prevent Hernández from connecting with a cross. Their first goal attempt came from a corner that was met by the head of Rice, but Foster was equal to the header. The Hornets’ first chance of the game came in the 18th minute as Deeney met a cross from Femenía with a shot that was deflected for a corner. Antonio then tried a shot from distance that was met by a terrific save from Foster. Just before the half hour mark, Pereyra played a one-two with Deulofeu and was through on goal when he was taken down by Balbuena. The referee immediately pointed to the spot, but Troy had to wait an age to take the penalty as the West Ham man had picked up an injury making the tackle and needed treatment. After a long wait, Troy stepped up and, with the West Ham fans behind the goal doing their very best to put him off, coolly smashed the ball into the top corner to give the Hornets the lead. Balbuena was unable to run off the injury, so soon made way for Ogbonna. A theatrical tumble into the box by Antonio was only rewarded with a free kick on the edge of the area which Snodgrass powered into the wall. The home side had an excellent chance to draw level when a cross from Anderson was headed down by Antonio to Hernández who hit a sweet volley goalwards, but Foster pulled off an excellent save. In time added on, Watford had a great chance to increase their lead as Deulofeu released Deeney, his first shot was blocked and, sadly, he curled the follow-up wide of the target.
So we reached half time a goal to the good. It had been a pretty even half with few chances but it has to be said that the best of them had fallen to the home side. Again, Foster was performing heroics.
West Ham almost had an equalizer five minutes into the second half, as a corner from Snodgrass was headed against the post by Antonio, from our angle it appeared to have gone in so we were very happy to see the clearance. The first caution for the Hornets went to Kabasele for a foul on Snodgrass. The resultant free-kick by Anderson was straight into the wall. Before the free kick was taken, West Ham made their second change bringing Carroll on for Noble. West Ham looked to draw level with a shot from distance from Masuaku, but again it was saved by Foster. Holebas received his customary yellow card, likely for a foul on Hernandez, but he didn’t do himself any favours by then having a row with Snodgrass. Watford had a decent chance of a second goal when Doucouré found Pereyra whose low shot was parried by Fabianski, and Deeney was unable to take advantage. West Ham should have equalized when Anderson made his way into the box and laid the ball on to Hernández who completely miskicked and Foster was able to gather easily.
Watford should have increased their lead on 71 minutes as Deulofeu found Doucouré whose magnificent shot was met by a blinding save from Fabianski. Doucouré then turned hero in the other box, taking the ball off Hernández when he looked sure to score. Each side made a substitution with 15 minutes to go as Sema made way for Cleverley for the Hornets and Diangana replaced Hernandez for the home side. Carroll had a chance to break back with an acrobatic shot but it was a rather poor effort and cleared the bar. Watford should have put the game to bed when Deulofeu put Deeney through into the box but, with only Fabianski to beat, he hit a low shot straight at the keeper to screams of frustration from the away end. Cleverley then tried his luck with a shot from wide on the right but again it was straight at Fabianski. The Watford goal was living a charmed life as Foster did well to save a shot from Snodgrass, but the rebound dropped to Antonio who looked sure to score but the shot rebounded off the post much to the relief of the travelling Hornets. Gracia made his second change at this point replacing Deeney with Success to howls of protest from our section of the away end. Why on earth would he replace Deeney? It should really have been Deulofeu who had not had his best game (my thoughts at the time, which have been rather discredited as I reread my notes).
Foster was in action again almost immediately tipping a header from Carroll over the bar. Then we had one of those, “what the hell do we know about football” moments as Deulofeu played a one-two with Pereyra before beating Fabianski right in front of us and sending the away end into raptures (while readying to eat a large slice of humble pie). Surely that lovely goal had to seal the win. Certainly the home fans thought so as, when I had finished celebrating the goal, I looked up at the stands to see that the home sections of the stadium were almost empty. It was quite shocking. The announcement of 3 minutes of added time was greeted with hysterical giggling from one of our party who couldn’t quite believe our luck. There was just time for goal hero Deulofeu to be replaced by Mariappa, and Diop to be booked for a foul on Success before the final whistle went to confirm Watford’s win.
As we left the ground, there was much festive joy among the travelling Hornets and the concourse rang out to a loud chorus of “Jingle Bells (Oh what fun it is to see Watford win away)”. My sister was trying to get all of her celebrating out of the way before meeting her husband (who is a really good bloke and takes defeat very sportingly), particularly as she had a text from her (Watford supporting) daughter telling her to “Be nice to Dad.”
Transport ninja, Richard, had us back in the pub, via a quick train hop, in no time at all. Made all the more impressive when the others, who I assumed must have gone straight home, turned up about 10 minutes later. The post-match gathering was very happy indeed. West Ham had been on a great run of form, so this had to be considered to be an excellent win and three very welcome points. The match had been pretty even, with some great chances for both teams, but a combination of Ben Foster and the woodwork had ensured that we kept a clean sheet. Again we played some lovely football, while showing resilience at the back, and Capoue returned from suspension playing as if he had never been away. So we go into Christmas with 27 points and in seventh place in the table. Happy Christmas one and all!