I am normally pretty irritated when our games are moved to stupid times for television, and it has to be said that there is no more stupid time for football than midday on a Sunday. However, on this occasion, I was actually quite pleased as it meant that I would attend a game on the 40th anniversary of my first matchday at Vicarage Road. On that occasion, Chesterfield were the visitors for a third division game. My friends and I went to the Wimpy for lunch before the game (a great treat in those days), we won the game 2-0 with goals from Ian Bolton and Ross Jenkins and I was officially hooked.
Work commitments in the US meant that I was unable to go to Liverpool for the midweek game. I must say that, as I followed the game from afar and the goals started going in, my regret at not being at Anfield dissipated a little. This is only the second league game that I have missed this season, in those games we have failed to score while conceding nine goals. I will do everything within my power to ensure that I am ever present from now until May.
Given the early start, I decided to forego a pre-match beer and head straight for the ground. All the more time to spend with the family, a particular pleasure on this occasion as my niece, Maddie, was making a rare visit to Vicarage Road. I had given her my season ticket seat and intended to sit in the vacant seat of a friend who couldn’t make it, but one of our neighbours kindly moved and we were able to all sit together.
Leicester’s decision to dispense with the services of Claude Puel and appoint Brendan Rodgers meant that this was the third home game in a row in which we would face a former manager. It also ensured a better atmosphere than may have been expected on a Sunday lunchtime as Mr Integrity returned to Vicarage Road.
Team news was that Gracia had made just the one change with the return of Holebas from suspension meaning that he took the place of Masina. So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu and Deeney. After the away team was announced, Tim Coombs asked the Watford fans to give a big welcome to our former manager, which had the predicted response of a loud chorus of boos.
The Hornets started brilliantly and should have taken the lead in the second minute when Mariappa met a Holebas free kick with a shot from close range that Schmeichel did brilliantly to stop, the follow-up from Deulofeu was deflected wide. But the Hornets were not to be denied for long and in the fifth minute Deeney rose to meet a free kick from Deulofeu and head past Schmeichel. That certainly settled the early nerves. Our first indication that we would have a typically torrid time with Jon Moss came in the 13th minute when the referee deemed a challenge from Mariappa on Vardy as deserving of a yellow card. Vardy then found himself in the wars again as he and Foster came for a free kick and collided heavily. They were both down for a while with Foster taking the longer to recover. When Ben finally sat up he looked into the television camera that was directly in front of him and stuck out his tongue. I breathed a sigh of relief at that point. Leicester then had a dominant spell but the only chance of note came as Ricardo played a ball across the penalty area for Chilwell to cut back for Barnes who shot high and wide of the target. Watford had a good chance to score a second goal, as Capoue released Deeney who put in a decent cross for Doucouré, but the Leicester defenders stopped the shot. The Hornets fashioned another chance as Pereyra found Deulofeu who went on a run into the box but could only shoot straight at Schmeichel. At the other end Ricardo put in a low cross that looked dangerous until Mariappa met it with a powerful clearance that went out for a throw. Watford had the last chance of the half as a long pass released Pereyra who crossed for Deeney, but there were two Leicester defenders in attendance who stopped him getting a shot in.
So the half time whistle went after a really decent half of football that was quite unexpected as Sunday lunchtime television games are not exactly known for their entertainment value. The game had gone in waves of possession, but Foster had yet to make a save.
The players had warmed up for the game wearing shirts showing the Man of Men which is the symbol for the Prostate Cancer UK charity. Mike Parkin of the From the Rookery End podcast was on the pitch at half time talking about the charity. Last year he did the March for Men, which I did a couple of years ago, in order to raise funds for research into prostate cancer, a disease that has affected his father as it has friends and family of mine so it is a cause very close to my heart and I was delighted to see the efforts at this game to raise awareness of a horrible disease that affects so many men.
The visitors had the first chance of the second half with a shot from distance that was straight at Foster. The first chance of the half for the Hornets should have led to them increasing their lead as Pereyra played the ball out to Doucouré on the edge of the box, he hit a gorgeous shot that needed a brilliant one-handed save from Schmeichel to keep it out. Jon Moss was increasingly attracting the ire of the Watford fans as he blew up for a series of innocuous looking fouls (by the Hornets) while waving play on for infringements from Leicester that looked far more obvious. The annoyance was compounded when he booked Capoue for a nothing foul. At this point, the Leicester fans decided to serenade Troy with a chorus of “Troy Deeney, what a w*nk*r.” Troy just laughed and applauded them. There was another clash of striker and goalkeeper, this time a ball was played over the top to Deeney, Schmeichel came out to clear and they collided. Troy was booked which seemed harsh as he had every right to go for that ball. Both teams made their first substitution within minutes of each other and, in each case, a player called Gray took the field, in the place of Barnes for the visitors and Deulofeu for the Hornets. Gerry looked very unhappy at the decision. Leicester came close with a speculative shot from Ndidi that rebounded off the crossbar.
Watford fans were shouting for a free kick as Deeney was fouled, at least I believe a big defender leaning on your back is a foul, Jon Moss clearly does not, so waved play on allowing Tielemans to release Vardy who broke forward and chipped Foster to get the equalizer. At this point the nerves really set in and I was sure that Leicester would get a winner. Rodgers made a double change with Tielemans and Vardy making way for Mendy and Iheanacho. The visitors having drawn level, Moss relented and finally awarded a free kick to the Hornets and booked Pereira for a foul on Deeney, decisions that earned the referee an ironic standing ovation from the Watford fans. The visitors threatened to get a winner with a dangerous looking cross from Chilwell, but Foster was down to make a comfortable save. They had another decent chance as Morgan met a cross from Maddison but the header was wide of the target. Gracia made a final change bringing Cleverley on for Hughes just as the fourth official held up the board indicating that there were four minutes of added time. Following the equaliser, Leicester had looked the more likely winners, but it was the Hornets who snatched a late goal as Deeney played a lovely ball through to Gray and, with the Rookery screaming encouragement, he shrugged off the attentions of the defender and finished past Schmeichel to send the home fans into a wild celebration. Our little group were bouncing up and down in a lovely family group hug. Gray was booked for taking his shirt off. It was worth it. My heart was pounding for the remainder of the added time, but the final whistle went and the celebrations started again.
As the referee left the field, he was roundly booed by the home fans. It was no more than he deserved, but it annoyed me as we should have been cheering our lads after that win.
Back to the West Herts for a post-match pint. I had been warned that, prior to the game, “our” table had been taken over by a group of Scandinavians. It turns out that this was a large group of Norwegians who were old friends of Don, who had met them on a pre-season tour of Norway in the early 80s, which was when he had first met his good friend, Trond (now a Watford resident and season ticket holder). One of the visitors had been to our match at Kaiserslautern, so these were not tourists jumping on the Premier League bandwagon at Watford.
Consensus after the game was that we would have lost that one last year … and the year before … and probably the year before that. Leicester had more possession during the game, but the Watford defence had been steadfast, restricting their shooting opportunities such that, the goal apart, Foster wasn’t tested. The Hornets played some lovely football and it was Schmeichel who had made the more impressive saves. Deeney put in a superb Captain’s performance that was capped with his goal and assist. What has been particularly pleasing this season is that the second half slump has not materialized. We continue to be challenging opposition for (almost) all of our opponents. We now have 43 points and look likely to surpass all of our previous premier league totals making this a season to remember and cherish.
The forty years that I have been watching the Hornets have provided me with some incredible experiences. Our small town club has punched above its weight for most of that time and given us a team to be proud of. I have met many lovely people, made great friends and have so many happy memories. But one of the loveliest things is to see the next generation of fans coming to games. So many of my friends and those who sit around me in the Rookery are now bringing children and grandchildren to games and sharing the joy with them. Our family group is one of those and the highlight of this game for me was seeing our Maddie celebrating the goals. She may not go very often, but she is definitely a Watford fan. It proves the adage that you can take the girl out of Watford, but you can’t take Watford out of the girl.