Having been unable to make the trip to Austria and then being in the US for work last week, this was my first game of this pre-season and I was really looking forward to seeing some live football. As much as anything, I wished to displace the memory of the Cup Final as the last game that I had seen. The flashbacks are still a cause of some distress. While on the train, I received a message from Don (well before midday) informing me that the West Herts was open. I arrived at my usual time to find Don at “our” table and all was right with the world.
We headed for the ground earlier than usual with the intention of buying this season’s new shirts (although I am not a fan as yet, and the shirts without a pre-printed name and number were hard to find). As we arrived at the stadium, it was lovely to bump into Dave M and Miles for a catch up. Then Olly Wicken appeared brandishing the new Watford Treasury, which saved me heading back down Vicarage Road to find a copy. If you don’t already have one, it really is a magnificent publication.
This being the GT memorial game, there was time to pay respects to the great man and to admire the yellow and red flowers that had been placed in his hands, which was rather lovely.
Once inside the ground, we headed for our usual spot in the Rookery (if not our usual seats). The first notable difference was the big screens which have been added to the Vicarage Road and Rookery Stands. They look very good and should be visible from all areas of the ground. Hopes that Z-cars would be reinstated were cruelly dashed as the players took the field to “I’m Still Standing” and, as has happened at all games since the change, the pulse failed to quicken. I remain baffled at this decision which has no apparent benefit but has been a detriment to the matchday experience for many.
Before the game, Rita Taylor and her grandson, Jake, were on the pitch for the minute’s applause for GT. They were then introduced to the players as GT’s favourite song, Buddy Holly’s Raining in my Heart, was played over the tannoy. I must admit to having tears in my eyes at this point.
Watford’s starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Dawson, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue, Doucouré, Sema; Gray, Deeney.
Real Sociedad were playing in green shirts that looked very similar to our last season’s away shirts, which did give an impression of two Watford XIs lining up in a practice match.
The visitors almost made the perfect start as a cross from Ødegaard was headed goalwards by Willian José and it took a very good save from Foster to keep the game goalless. Real Sociedad threatened again with a shot from Merino that flew over the bar. The visitors should have taken the lead when the ball was played through to Oyarzabel, Foster was out of his goal so the Real man had an open net to aim at, but he opted to flick the ball goalwards and it was with some relief that we saw it roll wide of the far post. Watford’s first shot on goal came after 20 minutes with a shot from distance on the left from Holebas, but the Real keeper, Remiro, was down to make the save. The visitors had another decent chance with a shot from distance from Merino that was just wide of the target.
The breakthrough came when Zaldúa bounced off Sema in the box and the referee, Craig Pawson, pointed to the spot. There was some moaning near me in the Rookery but, while it may have been soft, it was a definite penalty. The crowd behind the goal in the Rookery tried to put Oyarzabel off, but he sent Foster the wrong way to give the visitors a deserved lead. Watford tried to hit back as a Holebas corner was headed goalwards by Dawson, but the keeper was equal to it. The visitors then won a free kick in a dangerous position, Ødegaard hit his effort through the wall, but Foster gathered easily. Real Sociedad should have increased their lead on the stroke of half time as Merino met a corner from Ødegaard with a header that rebounded off the inside of the far post to safety.
The half time whistle went after a half in which the visitors had most of the possession, but the Watford defence had been solid. Foster had pulled off a couple of decent saves and the first impression of Craig Dawson was a very good one.
Those who spent too long at the bar/concessions/loo at half time missed the equaliser that came 3 minutes into the second half. Hughes played a lovely through ball to Gray who held off the defender and finished (apparently with the help of a deflection). Ten minutes into the second half, the Hornets had a great chance to take the lead as the ball broke to Doucouré, whose shot was blocked, the ball rebounded to Deeney but his shot was well over the target. The visitors had another chance with a shot from Portu that hit the side netting. The resulting goal kick was taken down by Deeney who fed Gray, but the shot was well wide of the far post. Real Sociedad almost capitalised on a mistake by Doucouré which allowed Isak to escape upfield, he passed to José, who was frustrated by Foster, but the ball broke back to Isak whose shot was cleared off the line by Holebas. Isak had another chance to regain the lead for the visitors soon after, but Foster made the stop. Watford had a great chance to take the lead with three shots in quick succession, but the efforts from Deeney and Sema were blocked, while Remiro saved Capoue’s effort. The visitors had made numerous changes, but Gracia waited until the 76th minute to make his first substitution, replacing Sema with Cleverley. He then brought Janmaat on for Holebas (I still don’t recognise Janmaat without curls). Just when it appeared that the GT game would end in a draw yet again, Capoue played a lovely ball over the top to Gray who ran on, beat the defender and finished past Remiro to send the Watford fans home happy.
After the full-time whistle, Rita and Jake were back on the pitch to present a salver to the visitors and the trophy to Troy Deeney. There were smiles all round and it was lovely to see the warmth in the interaction between Troy and Rita, who are old friends by now.
On the way out of the Rookery, I was delighted to bump into an old friend from my days of taking the supporter’s coaches. She doesn’t go to many away games these days meaning that our paths rarely cross, so it was a real treat to see her.
On the way back up Occupation Road, there were the usual crowds outside the players’ entrance. It has to be said that Janmaat was allowed to disappear without much fuss, but Deulofeu was kept rather longer. I suspect that this was a result of people wanting photos of his outfit, which was an interesting choice with matching top and trousers which to me looked as though they were made from his grandmother’s curtains, although I am not a dedicated follower of fashion.
Back in the West Herts, the post-match consensus was that it had been a very enjoyable game. Real Sociedad had been good opposition and, with their pace and attacking prowess in the first half, it looked as though we would be well beaten, but a decent defensive performance kept the score down. The Hornets put in a considerably better performance in the second half and were well worthy of the win. Gray was particularly impressive up front, always willing and he took his two goals very well indeed. While pre-season results are meaningless, it is good for morale to start the season following a win.
Bring on the Brighton.