When the Hull and Sunderland games were scheduled on consecutive weekends, I decided to have a road trip between them exploring the North Yorkshire coast. Having spent the Hull weekend in Bradford, I started with a couple of days in Wakefield visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Hepworth Gallery, places of which I had happy memories following a previous visit around a Leeds game in 2012. Both places were equally delightful on my return visit. I then headed for the seaside, spending a couple of days in Robin Hood’s Bay taking side trips to visit Scarborough and Whitby, visiting the castle and the abbey and taking lovely walks along the seafront. Being a soft Southerner, I had never visited that coast before and was delighted to find that it was absolutely beautiful. On Friday, I headed to Newcastle via Guisborough (to see the Priory) and Saltburn (to see the sea again). On Friday night I had booked into a hotel that was next door to the pre-match pub. On Saturday morning I had a lovely walk along the quayside before heading to the pub for opening time. In the past, when it opened at midday, I have found myself in a queue to get in. On this occasion, at 2 minutes to 11, I found the doors already open and was soon sitting comfortably with a pint with coats and scarves draped across the seats in preparation for the arrival of the WoW and Happy Valley contingents. I was rather relieved that Jane and Josh arrived pretty early so that I wasn’t hogging the space on my own. We were soon joined by Graham, Laura, Pete and the Happy Valleys and managed to occupy the back room. With Sunderland still fighting for a play-off place, they were promising a huge crowd with 40,000 tickets having been sold. Our contingent promised to be sparse. Josh is a Newcastle fan and was hoping that we could derail their promotion bid. We tried to temper his expectations as, given recent performances, that seemed highly unlikely.
When the time came, we headed to the Metro for the journey to Sunderland. On arrival at the Stadium of Light there were massive queues at the turnstiles for the home stands. Needless to say we walked straight in at the away end. The staircase to the upper stand is not quite of Newcastle proportions but is still quite substantial. To distract you from your aching legs, they post up some interesting facts or witty comments on each landing. I don’t know whether they change them every week, but the references to Graham Taylor, Ronny Rosenthal and Jason Lee did make them seem quite Watford focussed.
Team news was that Wilder had made three changes from the Hull game. Following rumours that he was on the way to Brighton, there was no sign of João Pedro. Koné and Bacuna were also left out, with Davis, Asprilla and Choudhury coming in. So, the starting line-up was Bachmann; Kamara, Kabasele, Porteous, Andrews; Louza, Choudhury; Sema, Asprilla, Sarr; Davis. Former Watford youngster, Luke O’Nien started for the home side.
The home side had a chance to take an early lead with a shot from Ekwah that looked as though it would sneak in, but Bachmann intervened and made the save. The first chance for the Hornets came as they won a free kick in a dangerous position, but Louza’s delivery was awful, effectively a chip into the keeper’s arms. The first booking of the game went to Choudhury after he knocked Gelhardt over. Amad took the resultant free kick which flew wide of the far post. In the 11th minute there was applause for Sunderland fan, Danny Meah, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 42. Back on the pitch Sarr picked up the ball in the midfield and found Davis who exchanged passes with Sema, before he was closed down and won a corner. The delivery from Louza was excellent and was met by the head of Kabasele whose effort beat Patterson in the Sunderland goal and gave the Hornets an unexpected lead, much to the delight of the travelling Hornets (and their Newcastle supporting friends). Porteous was the next to find his name in the referee’s book after a foul on Gelhardt. He was in action soon after as the home side looked to hit back with a cross to the near post, the Watford man headed it wide. The home side threatened again with a low curling shot from Amad that was pushed clear by Bachmann, the follow-up was blocked by Andrews. The Watford youngster was then in action at the other end with a powerful shot that Patterson did well to keep out, the ball fell to Davis who should have hit the target but sent his effort wide.
The Hornets had a great chance for a second goal as a clearance was blocked by Asprilla who chested the ball down and shot just wide of the far post. At this point one of the stewards came and warned me about my camera citing the fact that images taken inside the ground are copyright. He was very nice about it, but it did seem a bizarre thing to say given that large numbers of people take photos and videos on their mobiles that are usually much better than my efforts. The home side had a great chance to equalise when Roberts went on a run into the box, but his shot was just wide of the target. At the other end Davis played the ball out to Sarr who advanced and hit a shot that was blocked, the ball fell to Sema but his shot was also blocked. The home side had one last chance to level before the break with a shot from the edge of the area by Gelhardt that was blocked, so the Hornets reached half time a goal to the good.
It was a pleasant change to have the travelling fans applauding their team off at the break. It had been a good half of football and certainly the best that we had seen from Davis for some time.
During the interval, Sunderland commemorated it being 50 years since they won the Cup Final. That was certainly a memorable win and the manager at the time, Bob Stokoe, is honoured with a statue outside the stadium.
The Hornets made a good start to the second half as Sarr did brilliantly to beat a defender and put in a cross that was blocked, the ball fell to Sema whose shot hit Davis and fell into Patterson’s arms. The home side had a great chance to draw level as a cross from Roberts was met by Hume whose powerful header needed a decent save from Bachmann to keep it out. The danger wasn’t over as the ball fell to Amad, but his effort was horribly mishit and flew wide of the target. Sunderland continued to threaten as a shot from distance from Ekwah flew wide of the near post. Ten minutes into the half each side made a change with Bacuna replacing Asprilla for the Hornets and Ekwah making way for Pritchard for the home side. The next chance for the home side came with a shot from Gelhardt that was blocked. Then a deep cross was met by the head of Cirkin, but he got under it, and it was an easy catch for Bachmann. The Hornets did brilliantly to win a corner as Sema battled past a defender and fed Kamara who cannoned the ball off an opponent. Louza’s delivery was met by Porteous who headed home before wheeling around to run to celebrate with the travelling Hornets at the other end of the ground.
Our joy was shortlived as, from a corner, O’Nien hit the crossbar, the ball rebounded and Hornets should have made the clearance, but the defending was shambolic and, eventually, Pritchard delivered a low cross back into the box for O’Nien to poke the ball home and reduce the deficit. The home side immediately had a chance to equalise as O’Nien played the ball out to Roberts on the right, he broke into the box but thankfully, on this occasion, his shot was deflected wide by Porteous. Then Amad tried a shot from distance that was straight at Bachmann. The home side made a double substitution at this point with Michut and Ba replacing Neil and Gelhardt. A promising run by Sarr was stopped by a robust tackle from O’Nien, who was booked for his trouble. The Hornets looked to restore their two-goal cushion when Davis was challenged in the box, the ball came out to Choudhury, but his effort flew wide of the near post. Wilder made another change at this point bringing Ngakia on in place of Sarr, who wound up the home fans by dawdling off the pitch. The Hornets made a further change bringing Hoedt on in place of Andrews. Sunderland had a great chance to draw level in normal time as the ball dropped to Clarke in a dangerous position in the box, but his shot was high and wide. They tried again with a shot from distance from Pritchard that was straight at Bachmann. The home side continued to press and there were shouts for a penalty when Clarke went down under pressure from Ngakia, but the referee was unmoved. Just as we thought we would go home with the three points, Roberts hit a curling shot from the edge of the box that flew in at the far post and sent the home fans wild. It was a terrific strike, but heartbreaking for the travelling Hornets. In the last minute, the home side looked for a winner, but the attack was stopped by a great tackle by Kamara in the box and the game finished with honours even.
The players were applauded off after what had been a spirited performance against a team who had something to play for. It may be that we benefitted from the absence of João Pedro as we tend to rely on him too much and he ends up trying to do everything which often means he is not where he should be. It was a great shame that, after taking a two-goal lead, panic in the defence allowed the home side to take a share of the points, but it was a decent game of football and, for the first time in a while, my heart was racing during the game as it felt like it meant something, and I really cared. Andy, who tends only to go to games in the North, said it was the best game that he had seen this season and it was a happy group who headed back to Newcastle for our post-match drinks.
So, we are back to Vicarage Road on Monday 8th for the season finale. Let us just hope that we finish on a high to send us into the Summer with smiles on our faces.
Thanks yet again for your reports. i never miss one of them, You have been mostly very kind in what has been a very forget able season. Any way i await hopefully a better year. look after yourself love Geoff