This was to be Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge, and I have to say that I had enjoyed reading social media during the week. Pearson is clearly well liked by his colleagues and former players and the comments from Leicester fans showed that he is held in very high esteem in those parts. As if that wasn’t enough, I must admit to cheering when Craig Shakespeare was confirmed as Assistant Head Coach.
As one of my oldest and dearest friends lives on Merseyside, I travelled up on Friday afternoon to spend the evening with them. But the early kick-off meant an early start from theirs and it did not bode well for the afternoon when I found myself caught in a hailstorm on the way to the station to catch the train into the city.
Despite information indicating that the pub wouldn’t be open until 11, the doors had opened before my arrival and there were already some familiar faces inside. Our party gathered, but a delayed flight from Amsterdam and delayed trains at Milton Keynes meant that two of our usual group were not going to make kick-off. After a swift pint or two, we headed to the ground.
The buses to Anfield had returned to the stop opposite Doctor Duncan’s and it was noted that there had been long queues there since about 10:30. We left the pub at a reasonable time but the length of the queue meant that, by the time we reached the front, the steward was telling us that we were on the last bus and it was already leaving later than planned (12:10). Having estimated that the bus would take 20 minutes to get to Anfield, I was getting rather tense at the late departure and Pete, sitting next to me, was becoming very apologetic about having had a second pint.
Team news for Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge was that he had made two changes from the Palace game with Mariappa and Hughes coming in for Masina and Pereyra, who were both out with injuries. So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Doucouré; Deulofeu, Hughes, Sarr; Deeney. There had been rumours in the pub that, due to the two midweek games that Liverpool were facing, they would play a much weakened team, possibly packed with youth players. When the Liverpool team came through, that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I started to feel very nervous indeed.
The bus arrived at the ground with 10 minutes to spare and, to my great relief, I found myself in the stand just as the game kicked off.
Our seats were located quite high up in a corner of the ground. The sun was very low over the opposite stand and, with a lot of tall people in front of me, I could see little of what was going on and absolutely nothing at our end of the ground. So, I was aware that there had been some early possession from the home side, but hadn’t seen any action (or heard any reaction from the crowd) that suggested anything resembling a goal chance. On 6 minutes, Sarr broke forward and played a lovely ball across the Liverpool box, but nobody was there to turn the ball in. Quite early on there was a chant from around us of “How sh*t must you be, it’s only 0-0.” My heart sank until I heard someone shout that it was a terrible song and we should be positive. Another voice spoke up in support of that view and my faith in our travelling support was restored. Goal chances were few and far between until a little flurry at the midpoint of the half. First for the home side when Henderson broke into the box and shot over the bar. Then Hughes won the ball in the midfield, advanced and shot just wide of the target. The first caution of the game went to Hughes who was booked for a foul on Henderson. There was little excitement on the pitch but, over the tannoy, we were told to ‘stand by for Operation Anfield exercise’ and the tension in the air was palpable. But the exercise came and went and we were none the wiser.
The home side had a shout for a penalty when Mané found Salah in the box and the Egyptian took a tumble, but the referee waved play on. Watford then had a half chance when Deeney headed the ball down to Doucouré, but Van Dijk was on hand to make the clearance. The home side had a chance from a corner, but Alexander-Arnold’s delivery was easily claimed by Foster. With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Watford should have taken the lead as Capoue played the ball back for Doucouré who miskicked horribly so failed to get a shot in when it looked easier to score. To add insult to injury, the corner from Deulofeu was poor which allowed Mané to claim the ball and escape upfield before finding Salah whose shot curled past Foster. At this point, bizarrely, there was a mass exodus from the home stand to our right. There were still 8 minutes to go to half-time, but the lure of the concessions clearly trumped watching the match. Watford had a gilt-edged chance to break back before half time when a shot from Deulofeu was saved by Allison, but he pushed it straight to Sarr in the box. Unfortunately, the youngster’s mishit was even worse than Doucoure’s. Henderson was the next to go into the referee’s book after pulling Deulofeu back. Liverpool had a great chance to grab a second when Mané broke into the box, but Kabasele made a superb save to stop him. So, the half finished with the Hornets a goal down, but it has to be said that we were very unlucky to be behind.
Watford had the first chance of the second half as Sarr broke into the Liverpool box, but Allison was able to make the save. At the other end a shot from Salah was blocked by Kabasele. Liverpool thought they had scored a second goal when Mané headed home, but the VAR decision was that the goal would not stand. There was no explanation in the ground of why the goal had been disallowed, but it seemed the forward was deemed to be offside. Deulofeu had a great chance to draw the Hornets level when he found himself with only Allison to beat, but the keeper was able to block the shot. Sarr had been tormenting the opposition all afternoon and the next player to fall victim was Milner who was booked for tripping him up. Liverpool were forced to make a substitution due to an injury to Wijnaldum who was replaced by Robertson. The Hornets had a great chance to draw level as Capoue played a lovely ball over the top for Deeney, but the Watford captain could not apply the finishing touch. Then Sarr broke into the area and was sent tumbling by Van Dijk, but the referee was unimpressed. At the other end, Firmino hit a low shot, but Foster was down to make the save. Another chance came and went for the home side as Salah broke into the box, but Kabasele was in close attendance and able to turn the ball back to Foster. Then Salah found Firmino in the box, but it came to nothing as Foster was out to make the save. With 20 minutes to go, Klopp made a second substitution replacing Shaqiri with Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The home side threatened again when a cross found Firmino, but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Foster. Pearson then made his first substitution replacing Deeney with Gray. The Watford defence were in action again as a cross from Chamberlain was repelled by the head of Mariappa. At the other end, another promising move came to nothing when Gray tried to release Sarr, but the touch was heavy and Gomez was able to clear. A decent pass from Gray went begging as Doucouré hadn’t read the ball, but the Liverpool defence were asleep and, in panic, Van Dijk almost turned the ball into his own net but, instead, it went out for a corner. On this occasion, Deulofeu’s delivery was decent but he could only hit the post. Watford were fighting to get back on terms and should have done better when a free kick from Hughes was cleared to Sarr, but the shot was well wide of the target. Then Sarr played the ball back to Doucouré whose shot was dreadful and cleared the bar. That was Abdoulaye’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Quina. At the same time Origi came on for Firmino for the home side. The Liverpool fans were heading for the exits, so a good number of them will have missed the second goal and it was a disappointing one to concede as the Hornets failed to clear a ball into the box and Salah flicked home. There was a final chance for Liverpool to extend their lead as Mané broke into the box, but he shot straight at Foster.
The final whistle went to cheers from all sides of the ground. While the travelling Hornets enthusiastically applauded the players, I was very pleased to see Pearson telling his players to go over and applaud the fans.
It is strange to feel so positive after a defeat, but the performance had been very encouraging and we felt very unlucky to have lost. Given the relative positions of the two teams at each end of the table, this game was much closer than it should have been and, but for the terrible finishing from the Hornets, this could have been an upset.
Sarr was a joy to watch. He is now showing us why Gino Pozzo paid a club record fee for him. The Liverpool defence were clearly scared of him as evidenced by the balls being thumped into the stands. Hughes and Kabasele were also magnificent, their reputations are growing with each game.
The game coincided with a gig from one of my favourite artists, Ian Prowse, who, with his band Amsterdam, was playing his traditional Christmas gig in his hometown. A number of us had bought tickets in the hope that this would give us some enjoyment from the day. The early kick-off meant that we had a long time to kill between the game and the gig and this was spent on a crawl of some of the most attractive pubs in Liverpool. During this, Mike continued to wear his Watford top and was approached by many locals (reds, blues and whites), all of whom congratulated us on our performance, with the Liverpool fans saying how much we had scared them. It is always good to hear such a positive reaction from opposition fans. Despite being bottom of the table, the hope has returned.
P.S. The gig was magnificent and Ian Prowse now has a number of new fans among the travelling Hornets.