When a match falls on 15th April, you can’t help but think of the events at Hillsborough 30 years ago. On that day, I was standing on the terrace at the County Ground, Swindon. Don was propped up on a crush barrier next to me and a police officer told us that a wall had fallen down at the cup semi-final between Liverpool and Forest. On the coach on the way home we listened to the horror unfolding on the radio. I still find it hard to believe that 96 fans just like me went to a game that day and didn’t come home. What is even harder to take is that those lives were used for political grandstanding and their families have had to fight for justice for so long. As Bill Kenwright said, “They picked on the wrong mums.” I have always thought that what happened to them could have happened to any of us, so we all stand together in the fight for justice.
My departure from the office was a little later than I had planned so, when I arrived at the West Herts, the jerk chicken had run out and I had to make do with a burger. Most disappointing.
Prior to the game, my sister had arranged for our nieces to recreate a photo they had taken with Ben Foster in 2007. He was a good sport in doing it and the resulting montage was rather lovely.
Team news was four changes from the semi-final with Foster, Kabasele, Janmaat and Masina in for Gomes, Mariappa, Holebas and Pereyra. So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Kabasele, Cathcart, Masina; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Femenía; Deeney, Gray.
As the players ran out, there was a shocking change as Z-cars was replaced by I’m Still Standing. Now I love Elton and have seen him live on many occasions, but it just didn’t feel right. All previous attempts to drop Z-cars have ended in tears, so I hope that the club rethink this terrible decision.
The game started very positively for the Hornets who created an early chance as Hughes received a cross from Femenía, but the shot was wide of the target. Unfortunately, in the 10th minute, it seemed that an encounter with my family had quite put Ben off his game as he received a back pass and dwelt on the ball far too long giving Aubameyang time to nip in, tackle him and put the ball in the net. It was an awful mistake. To add insult to injury, a minute later the referee blew up for an unknown infringement. He went to consult the linesman who indicated that he had seen an elbow. The referee returned and showed Deeney a red card for an offence that nobody else appeared to have seen. At that point I wished that I had gone to see Ian McEwan at the Southbank Centre, which had been my plan for the evening before the game was rearranged.
Arsenal had a chance to increase their lead as Iwobi broke down the wing and crossed for Aubameyang whose shot was deflected for a corner which came to nothing. The Hornets should have equalised as Cathcart hit a volley that Leno tipped onto the post. Watford created another great chance as Gray broke forward and tried to tee up Doucouré but Monreal put the ball out for a corner. The delivery came back to Femenía whose shot was deflected by Mustafi and ended up on the roof of the net. From the resulting corner, Kabasele took a shot but it was deflected wide of the target. This time the corner was cleared and led to an Arsenal break that finished with a shot from Iwobi that was saved by Foster. Hughes went on a tricky run and was tripped on the edge of the box. Capoue took the free kick, a brilliant strike that was heading for the top corner, but Leno managed to get a hand to it to tip it wide. Then a lovely move by the Hornets as Janmaat clipped a ball to Femenía who crossed for Kabasele, but the Watford man was penalised for a high boot. The last action of the half was a low shot from Xhaka that was straight at Foster.
When Ben appeared for the second half, he greeted the applause from the crowd by blowing a kiss and saying he was sorry. Emery made a change at the start of the half replacing Troy’s “victim”, Torreira, with Özil. The first chance of the second half fell to the visitors as Iwobi crossed for Aubameyang who touched the ball just wide. Capoue then earned a booking for knocking Mkhitaryan over. The visitors had a great chance to increase their lead as Aubameyang crossed for Mkhitaryan, but Foster pulled off an excellent save to keep the score down. Just before the hour mark, there was a substitution for each side with the visitors bringing Guendouzi on for Mavropanos, while Femenía made way for Success for the Hornets. An interesting change from Javi. Watford should have drawn level as Masina hit a brilliant shot from distance, but it crashed back off the crossbar. Then Janmaat played a lovely ball through to Gray, but his touch was poor and he could only direct his shot wide. Emery made his final substitution replacing Ramsey with Maitland-Niles. Watford threatened again as Janmaat crossed for Hughes, but the Arsenal defence were back to clear. The visitors then looked to increase their lead as Aubameyang slid in to meet a cross that he turned wide with the flag up for offside. Then Xhaka tried a shot from distance, but Foster was equal to it. The Hornets created another great chance as Success headed the ball down to Gray, he rounded Leno but Maitland-Niles was back to block his shot. Then Janmaat crossed for Hughes whose header was just over the bar. Watford made a final substitution bringing Sema on for Masina. But the last chance of the game fell to the visitors and was a terrible shot from Aubameyang that nearly hit us in the centre of the Rookery.
The final whistle went to loud cheers for the Hornets in appreciation of a tremendous performance with 10 men for 80 minutes. Arsenal had been poor and, but for the intervention of the post and some terrific saves by Leno, Watford would have won the game. The applause and chants for the Watford players at the end of the game continued until the last player left the pitch and were only interrupted in order to boo the officials. It is odd to feel quite so positive after a defeat, but the reaction of all the fans that I spoke to was of pride in a committed and entertaining performance. If only Troy had stayed on the pitch, it could have been very different.
I got back to my hotel in London quite late and, after seeing a link on Twitter, listened to Peter Jones summing up after the game at Hillsborough. He finishes by mentioning the stewards gathering up the possessions of the victims, the red and white flags, scarves and rosettes of the Liverpool fans. His last words are, “And the sun shines now.” Just as heart breaking 30 years on as it was at the time. The events of that day must never be forgotten.