Friday night I was at Vicarage Road to join the East and South East Asian Hornets for their Lunar New Year Celebration. It was a lovely evening with good food and entertainment including a fascinating talk by Geoff Wicken about the Watford connections in that area of the world. We even got to have our pictures taken with the Great Wall of China cup. I was buzzing.
Saturday morning and I was up at the crack of dawn (by my standards) for the trip to Middlesbrough. The journey was relatively painless although I wasn’t impressed that the refreshments on offer on the 9am departure from Kings Cross were from the lunch menu. I had been really looking forward to my bacon sarnie. There was rather a long wait at York for the connection, but it all ran to time, and I was in the wasteland that is Middlesbrough on schedule. I had been assured that the designated pub was on the same road as the pub that we have frequented in the past, so I headed there, passing a crowd of Watford ne’er do wells, with a couple of police officers in attendance, outside another pub on the road. When I reached Doctor Brown’s, I found that it was closed down and there was no sign of the other pub. Checking the map, I found that it was 10 minutes’ walk away in a different part of town. When I finally arrived to meet the Happy Valleys I found that the guys who I had followed part way from the station were all there, as was Jerry from the East Anglian Hornets. His presence is normally the sign of a decent alehouse and so it proved to be.
At the nominated time, we headed for the ground, passing the Arts Centre and the courthouse which is fronted by a Scales of Justice statue, which apparently depicts two urchins being held by the scruffs of their necks by Lady Justice. It is quite a bizarre piece but gave us some amusement. Having not eaten at the pub, there was a visit to the concession stands on arrival at the ground. On previous visits, some of our party have had a parmo in town, which I have to say looks like a heart attack in a takeaway box. The offering of a parmo in a bun at the ground is basically a chicken breast and cheese in a bun and is very tasty, although Ashley seemed to have more cheese than chicken in his.
Team news was that there were two changes from the Rotherham game with Kamara and Davis in for Morris and Bayo. So, the starting line-up was Bachmann; Cathcart, Sierralta, Choudhury; Kamara, Koné, Gaspar, Ferreira; Sarr, Davis, Martins.
On arrival at our (very good) seats, my eyes were immediately drawn to one of the stewards who had a hi vis jacket with the legend “Pitch Incursion Team” on the back. I did wonder how many incursions they have that a team is needed.
The players took the knee before kick-off which was met by loud boos from the Boro fans to our left, how very sad. The home side had the first chance of the game as a shot from Archer was blocked and the ball fell to Akpom whose effort was blocked and deflected for a corner. The home fans were already making their presence felt, loudly supporting their team. The home side threatened again following a corner which was played to Giles on the right wing, he put in a dangerous cross that was headed wide by Cathcart. Then Akpom played a lovely through ball to Forss in the box, his initial shot was blocked by Bachmann, his follow-up hit the side-netting. The next attack from the home side was a rapid break that finished with a shot from Archer that was cleared off the line by Choudhury. There were 18 minutes on the clock before the Hornets launched an attack worthy of the name, Davis played a ball over the top to Sarr whose shot from distance was well over the bar. The Hornets then had a great chance to take the lead with a great counter as Gaspar found Davis who played the ball back to Martins, he broke into the box and hit a shot that flew over when he really should have tested the keeper. The Hornets were having a good spell and the Boro keeper, Steffen, was nearly punished for dwelling too long on the ball, Sarr challenged and got a touch on the ball, but could not direct it goalwards. The home side then had a great chance to open the scoring when Archer beat Sierralta and took a shot that was stopped by a decent save from Bachmann, the loose ball dropped to Choudhury who made the clearance.
At the other end a dangerous cross into the Boro box was caught by Steffen before it reached Davis. The home side took the lead after 35 minutes. It started with a Watford free kick that was cleared to Archer who beat Kamara before bearing down on the Watford goal. Bachmann came out to make the save, but Akpom flicked the ball up and headed home as Kamara stretched to try to keep it out. The home side threatened again with a break from Archer that was stopped by a great tackle from Cathcart. Into time added on and a Watford attack prompted someone behind me to make a comment about sneaking a cheeky goal before half time. Sadly, it was the home side who managed to do that. Howson played a lovely ball to Forss, Ferreira and Kamara stood off him and he beat Bachmann to send the home side into the break with a two goal lead.
The half time whistle went to boos from the travelling fans. I didn’t think that the half had been that bad, but the Hornets had given away too many balls and, when Boro attacked, they always looked dangerous.
Bilić made three changes at the break with Bacuna, Adeyemo and new boy Araújo coming on for Sierralta, Koné and Davis. It was a slightly baffling (and worrying) change that put Choudhury in the centre of defence. The first sight of the new boy was thrilling as he broke into the box and Steffen had to come out to block, the ball dropped to Adeyemo who was unable to capitalise. There was then some good work from Martins who battled into the box, his cross was blocked but came back to him, he fed Adeyemo whose shot from the edge of the area was well over the bar. Martins threatened again, but this time his shot was deflected wide. The young Brazilian then made another forward break that resulted in a shot from Adeyemo that was deflected wide. Giles then had a chance to increase the lead for the home side, but his shot was straight at Bachmann. The Hornets then lost yet another player to injury and it looked to be another hamstring pull as Ferreira overstretched and pulled up and was replaced by Asprilla. The Hornets threatened again as Kamara went on a threatening run and crossed for Adeyemo, but the cross was too high for him and Steffan made the catch. Boro had a great chance to score a third when a deep cross from Smith was headed back by McGree for Archer who scooped his shot over the target. Then Hackney broke into the box and hit a powerful shot, but Bachmann was behind it. The home side had another decent chance when a deep cross reached McNair who shot wide of the near post. The Hornets then made another change bringing Pollock on for Martins, which allowed Choudhury to go back into the midfield. Boro also made a change, bringing Watmore on for goalscorer Forss. The Hornets had a decent chance to pull a goal back when Sarr played a ball to Adeyemo who switched feet before shooting, but his effort was saved. Then Sarr tried a shot from the edge of the area, but it was well over the target. At the other end, McGree tried a shot from distance, but it was straight at Bachmann. There was one last chance for the Hornets to reduce the deficit when Sarr played a ball to Araújo in the box, but Steffan was out to save at his feet and the game finished with a two goal defeat for the Hornets.
The travelling fans who were still in the stand at the end of the game offered sympathetic support to the players when they came over to applaud us, but that didn’t mask the fact that it had been a poor performance. There had been a promising spell midway through the first half and a very good start to the second, but Middlesbrough were on top for most of the game, were incredibly dangerous when they attacked and, once they scored the second goal, the Hornets never looked like getting back in the game. The reality was that, given the changes in personnel due to injuries and new arrivals, this looked like a group of strangers playing together while Middlesbrough played as a team, albeit one whose defence could have been breached by a more coherent opposition. One positive from the game was the debut of Araújo who will definitely trouble defences in this division.
As we left the stadium, we were directed away from the ground on a road that took us away from the town centre. I started to panic that I would miss my train, but we righted ourselves and were back at the station in good time. Only to find that the train to Eaglescliffe had been cancelled. This gave me no chance of making the connection for my booked train to London. So, I got busy on my phone cancelling that journey and rebooking via York. The prices quoted for the through journey were brutal, but booking the two legs separately was reasonable (or what passes for reasonable in train pricing nowadays). On the platform, I bumped into Ross from Ayrshire and his daughter who were also going to miss their connection as their train to Newcastle was severely delayed. He told me that, on the way to the station, they had encountered some Boro kids who decided to give them grief with a chant about travelling 4 hours to lose 2-0. Ross pointed out that they had travelled for 6 hours, so the kids gleefully amended their chant. Fair play to him, he is flying down for the Reading game and said that he would see us at our usual table at the cricket club in Burnley. I went back into the station and spotted the rest of my party in the coffee shop, so was able to sit with them for the journey to York before they headed on to West Yorkshire. Those encounters sum up why we go. The football may be rubbish, or it may be magical, but there are some really lovely people that follow the Hornets and spending time with them makes it all worthwhile.