With Christmas all done and dusted, it was back to the West Herts for the last pre-game drinks of 2018. I had arrived pretty early, but there were already a couple of friends at our usual table, including Don who is always there waiting for the doors to open. One of my jobs of the day was to pass on the tickets for Woking to my group. Being something of a control freak, I usually make the bookings for away games for my group of friends. This does tend to make me a little anxious in case I forget someone. The small number of tickets available for the cup tie increased the anxiety levels considerably. There had been a sigh of relief when all the tickets arrived, and a weight lifted from my shoulders when I was able to pass them on.
Mike had spent Christmas in Lisbon and I had thoroughly enjoyed reading his blog posts about his trip, which had convinced me that I must make a proper visit, having only ever been there for work. One of the features of his trip had been his daily consumption of pastel de nata, and he had kindly brought back a box to share. They were absolutely delicious. It was also a day to raise a glass to his lovely wife, Dee, on her anniversary. She is greatly missed by us all.
When the team was announced, we were all rather surprised to hear that Gracia had made six changes from Boxing Day with Janmaat, Masina, Mariappa, Quina, Hughes and Success coming in for Femenía, Holebas, Kabasele, Doucouré, Sema and Deeney. So the new look starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa, Masina; Hughes, Quina, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Success. I must say that I was somewhat concerned at the number of changes.
The first chance of the game fell to the home side as a corner from Pereyra reached Quina whose volley from distance cleared the bar. It wasn’t long before the visiting Newcastle fans were in full voice, although I am sure Daryl Janmaat could have done without the chants that were being aimed at him. Back on the pitch, a gorgeous ball from Hughes found Deulofeu, but Dummett was on hand to put him off and he poked wide of the near post. Newcastle’s first attack of note came as Ritchie tried to release Rondón, but he was stopped by the linesman’s flag. Deulofeu threatened again as he latched on to a through ball from Pereyra but his shot was blocked by the keeper, Dúbravka. The visitors took the lead just before the half hour mark as Atsu broke forward and found Ritchie who crossed for Rondón to head past Foster. Although the home side had been dominant up to that point, they had gone behind to the first on-target shot of the game. The Watford players looked a bit shaken at going behind and a rare mistake from Cathcart looked as though it would cause more trouble, but Foster came out to make the tackle. With 5 minutes to go until half time, Rondón had the ball in the net for the second time, but this time the flag was up and the goal was disallowed, which came as a great relief. Watford tried to hit back as Hughes found Success but his shot from distance was saved by Dúbravka. The first booking of the game went to Masina for a foul on Yedlin. The last chance of the half came as Hughes found Success but, again the shot was blocked and we reached half time a goal down.
It was another frustrating half of football. Watford had been rather lacklustre, but had still dominated the first half hour without creating any meaningful chances. They fell apart a little after the goal and there were some nervous moments late in the half. The performance would have to be much better in the second half if we were to get anything out of this game.
The visitors made a substitution at half time replacing Fernández, who had picked up an injury, with Schär. Watford won a free kick on the edge of the area at the beginning of the second half, Pereyra stepped up to take it, but blasted it in to the wall. Newcastle had a chance to increase their lead from a corner, but Rondón’s header flew just over the bar. Gracia made two changes on 54 minutes replacing Hughes and Quina with Deeney and Doucouré. The guy behind me summed up my feelings with his comment “We can play football, why aren’t we?” There was a glimpse of what we can do as a good move ended with the ball with Deeney in the box, but he was crowded out before he could shoot. Yedlin received a silly booking for throwing the ball away. Then Ritchie tried a shot from distance, but it was straight at Foster.
Watford were playing more positively now and a ball into the Newcastle box was punched by Dúbravka but fell to Janmaat whose cross was met by the head of Deeney, but his effort was easily gathered by the Newcastle keeper. With 12 minutes to go, there was a substitution for each side as Shelvey replaced Hayden for the visitors and Masina made way for Holebas for the Hornets. With only 8 minutes of normal time remaining, Watford finally got the equaliser as Deulofeu put in a lovely cross and Doucouré rose to head home. Game on! Watford were pushing for a winner and had a decent chance when a Holebas free kick dropped for Success, but his shot was over the bar. Then Pereyra ran on to a ball into the box and went down under a challenge, he appealed for the penalty, but his appeals were rightly waved away, it would have been a very soft penalty if given. Pereyra tried his luck again after receiving a ball from Success, but he ran into traffic in the box. Schär was then booked for a nasty foul on Success, who had been going down far too easily when challenged, but actually had my sympathy on this occasion. Holebas took the free kick, but Doucouré was unable to connect on this occasion. The Frenchman had another chance to put the home side in front as he met a ball from Deulofeu, it rolled agonisingly just wide of the near post, but wouldn’t have counted anyway as the flag was up. The Hornets had one last chance to grab a winner as a ball upfield was headed on by Deeney to Success but his low shot was saved by Dúbravka and the game ended with honours even.
That is the second time that we have played Newcastle this season and the second time that we have come away frustrated. The visitors were certainly more impressive than they had been at St James’ Park, but we should have challenged them more. They had come to put 10 men behind the ball and Watford just couldn’t find a way to break them down. While there had been a lot of changes, the starting XI should have been good enough to create more than they did in the first half. The performance was considerably better when Deeney and Doucouré came on. They battled more when the opposition had the ball and we generally looked more dangerous. We also missed Holebas’s attacking prowess.
There were some very odd results this weekend, with Cardiff beating Leicester and Wolves getting a surprising win at Spurs on Saturday and then West Ham losing to Burnley on Sunday, which all made me feel a bit better about our draw. That was also helped by the fact that the result didn’t see us losing any ground, so we finish the year in the top half of the Premier League.
After the game, it was back to the West Herts for a couple of post-match pints accompanied by Liverpool’s frankly terrifying performance against Arsenal. As I eventually made my way home, I reflected on the day as a whole. I love football and the Hornets have given me many happy memories with their performances on the field over the years. But, even if the game is poor or frustrating, my match days are spent in the company of some lovely people and that is what makes them so very special. So, as the year comes to an end, I will raise a glass to my football family and thank them for making even the worst football match a good day out.
I extend those good wishes to all who read this blog. I hope that you have a very happy new year and that the Hornets continue to give us much to celebrate in 2019.