And so, the day that had been so long awaited dawned. After the second lockdown had limited my weekend entertainment to walks on the Heath, it felt very strange to wake on Saturday morning with plans for the day. The fact that those plans included a visit to Vicarage Road were almost too much to take in.
I thought back to the last game I saw live, away at Palace almost 9 months ago to the day. I had been jet-lagged after a transatlantic overnight flight and the game had been disappointing. Dominance without scoring, a goal on the break and the opposition then sitting back defending which we found impossible to break down. It was a dreadful game, but the memory of the day is the time that I spent with some lovely friends. The football this season has followed a lot of those same characteristics, but the solitary viewing just makes it worse.
I hate watching football on television, so the past few months of football viewing have not been enjoyable. Although I have to say that Hive Live has been brilliant entertainment. The commentary has also been excellent. I am a long-time fan of Jon Marks and the addition of Tommy Mooney has been a masterstroke. He knows *everyone* in the lower divisions. I have loved hearing about the young players that are the children of his friends or know his kids and have been in his garden. But that entertainment does not make up for not being in the ground. There is nothing like being at a game and every time that I saw the lads come out of the tunnel before kick-off, my heart broke that I wasn’t there.
Wednesday’s dull stalemate was not a lot of fun to watch and the tension had been ratcheted up when Emma mentioned in the pre-show that the results of the ticket ballot would come out that evening. I watch the games on my computer monitor, so also had the laptop screen open and was constantly refreshing (as I had been all day) to see if the long-awaited email had arrived. Towards the end of the game, Jon mentioned in commentary that they would be sent out after the game, so all my refreshing had been a waste of time. The group that I meet at games have been having post-match Zoom calls as compensation for the fact that we can’t get together in person for a drink. During this call first Mike, then Richard got their emails telling them that they were going to the game. Then mine arrived. Fuzz asked whether the screen had frozen, but it was me who had frozen as I realised that I would be going to the game. Jacque also got the thumbs up, but there was disappointment for Alice, Cate and Nigel who were not picked out of the hat.
The next day I spoke to Don Fraser, who had also secured a ticket. He was concerned that he would not be able to remember the words and I am still not sure whether he meant for chants or his ritual admonishment of the officials (I suspect that it was the latter). I reassured him that it would all come back once he was in the ground.
The rituals of the day were going to differ from my usual habits, but I tried to do as much as possible to ensure that certain superstitions were followed. Recent results have indicated that my lucky mug is the one featuring John McClelland, so that was used for my morning coffee. My clothes were carefully chosen to ensure that I wasn’t wearing opposition colours. I charged my camera, found the Watford mask that my friend, Farzana, had made out of a duvet cover from the Hornet Shop, packed my home shirt and a notebook and pen and I was ready for the game.
I moved house a couple of months ago, so I had a new route to Vicarage Road. Despite the train journey being so much easier that before, I decided to drive and was happy to see the first sign to Watford a couple of miles from my home. Some time ago, I read an interview with the lovely Gary Speed in which he said that he always put “The Green, Green Grass of Home” on to play in his car as he crossed the border into Wales. As I was living abroad at the time and a bit homesick, I adapted this to singing “Hertfordshire, la, la, la” as I pass the sign indicating the Hertfordshire border. When I passed the sign on the M1, I welled up as I burst into song.
I had arranged to meet my friend, Sarah, at the Museum. While I was there, a number of the Proud Hornets arrived. As it was the rainbow laces game, they were out in force. I was pleased to have packed my laces in my bag and I bought one of their badges to add to those already on my scarf. Watford Treasury maestro, Colin Payne, popped in with his daughter, so it was a lovely surprise to see them. Then Richard arrived. The last time I had seen Richard was after the Palace game when he hosted us for dinner. It was so odd seeing friends after so long and not being able to give them a hug, but just seeing them was lovely.
We had arranged to meet Mike and Jacque at the Ebb Tide to get some lunch. While there, I saw a number of familiar faces including a guy that I see at all games who removed his mask to give me a beaming smile.
Walking down Vicarage Road again was just wonderful. I stopped for a chat with Mick Smithers, our Police liaison officer. He has had Saturdays off for nine months now. He said that the crowd that had arrived so far were just lovely. Observing the protocol and obviously so happy to be there.
I had received a text from sweetie man, Glenn, but not been able to catch up with him, so was delighted when he and Amy appeared, not just because I was given a bag of pork scratchings and a crème egg. Having those in my bag made it feel much more like a normal matchday.
I joined the queue to get in. When the green light came on at the turnstile and I moved through into the Rookery, my heart nearly burst with the excitement. I had to stop for a moment to take it all in. Inside the Rookery, there were a whole lot of portaloos, so I was rather relieved to be told that the ladies was open.
The first view of the Vicarage Road pitch brought tears to my eyes. When I found my seat I was delighted to find that, in addition to Richard sitting two rows in front of me, Elvis Mark was in the row between us, so there were friendly faces to chat with during the game.
Team news was four changes from Wednesday night with Cathcart, Femenía, Chalobah and Quina making way for Troost-Ekong, Wilmot, Cleverley and Sema. So, the starting line-up was Foster, Ngakia, Kabasele, Troost-Ekong, Wilmot, Sarr, Garner, Cleverley, Sema, Deeney and João Pedro. I was thrilled to see Cleverley and Sema back in the team and there was the added bonus that Hughes and Capoue were both on the bench.
As I took in the pre-match atmosphere, taking some videos to send to family and friends who were sitting at home, Richard turned around to say something and then seeing me, beside myself, decided he would give me a moment. The sound of Z-cars just about finished me off. There were cheers as the players took to the pitch and came over towards the Rookery end. Ben Foster had his GoPro in his hand and was beaming as he filmed the crowd behind the goal. I was so distracted by the occasion, that I missed seeing the players taking the knee. But I reengaged in time for kick-off.
The first half chance of the game fell to Sarr whose shot from distance was blocked. At the other end, a poor throw from Foster gave the ball away allowing Wilson a chance to open the scoring, but Garner was on hand to make the block. Cardiff had a great chance to take an early lead when Ralls hit a lovely curling shot from the edge of the box, but it flew just wide of the target. There was some lively play from the Hornets and I found myself yelling encouragement until an enthusiastic shout of “Come on, Troy” led to me spitting in Mark’s direction. My apology was met with a smile and “You’ve really missed this, haven’t you.” Oh Yes! A lovely passing move from the Hornets finished with Ngakia feeding João Pedro in the box, his shot flew across the goal and just wide of the far post. It was a great chance. At this point I heard Don Fraser for the first time. From my seat halfway up at the far GT end of the Rookery, I could only see legs and wheels in the disabled enclosure, but I could certainly hear him. Cardiff had another chance as a cross from Wilson was met by Moore whose header cleared the bar. Then a terrible shot from distance by Wilson flew high and wide and was greeted with a chant of “What the f-ing hell was that?” It was so good to be back in a crowd. Sarr impressed tracking back and forcing Bennett to concede a goal kick.
Another Cardiff cross was met with a good defensive header from Wilmott. Then a wonderful cross from Sarr had to be punched clear by the Cardiff keeper, Smithies, who collided with Morrison who needed treatment. A robust challenge by Garner led to a free kick from Wilson that was met by the head of Moore, but it was an easy catch for Foster. On the half hour mark, a cross from Ngakia was claimed by Smithies. At the other end, a shot from Ojo was blocked by Ekong. There was a nervous moment when Ekong knocked Harris off the ball in the box, but the visitors’ shouts for a penalty were ignored. Another chance for Cardiff as a corner was met by Morrison who headed well wide of the target. Just before half time the visitors took the lead, the ball dropped following a corner and Moore finished past Foster. It was a bit scrappy, but the Hornets were behind. It was very strange to see players celebrating with absolutely nobody in the ground cheering. Watford had a chance to hit back with a free kick from a dangerous position. Garner delivered a lovely cross, but there was no Watford player able to get a touch on it. The half time whistle went to boos from the Rookery. We had the majority of the possession in the half, but the goal action had mostly been from the visitors, whose only shot on target had led to the goal.
The half time interview was with Alec Chamberlain who talked about his happy memories of his time at Watford, gaining two promotions while working under GT. He is now scouting for Sean at Burnley. He said that he loved travelling the country, but was doing most of his scouting watching players on his laptop at the moment, which isn’t as much fun. He is also working with the Welsh U-21s. He promised that he wasn’t looking at any of the Watford players.
The Watford players were back on the pitch early for the second half. Ivić made a substitution at half time bringing Femenía on for Ngakia. The substitute made an early impression, having been released by Kabasele, Kiko put in a lovely cross to the far post that Troy just failed to reach. Sarr was then brought down in the box, but it was no penalty. Watford won a free kick when Cleverley was fouled by Ralls, there was a bit of afters as the two tangled, but it came to nothing. Garner hit the free kick into the wall, the ball rebounded to him and he was flattened by a sliding tackle from Ojo who was booked for his trouble. Then Cleverley had a shot that was blocked and rebounded at an odd angle and almost dropped for Deeney who was not expecting it, so was slow to react, allowing Cardiff to clear.
An attempt by Sarr to break forward was stopped by a cynical block from Ralls who went into the referee’s book. Watford made a double substitution bringing Hughes and Quina on for Cleverley and Sema. It was so good to see Will on the field again. But it was Quina who made the immediate impact as a lovely ball over the top from Kabasele reached him at the far post, but his shot was blocked for a corner that was played out to Sarr, who blasted his shot over the target. It felt like a missed opportunity. With 20 minutes to go, the visitors made a change, replacing Harris with Hoilett. Kiko then had a couple of chances, first he put in a lovely cross that was cut out, then his follow-up shot was saved by Smithies who conceded a corner. The delivery from Garner was met by the head of João Pedro, but his effort was straight at Smithies. Sarr went on a brilliant run, exchanging passes with Femenía before crossing for Deeney, but Nelson was on hand to put the ball out for a corner. Sarr and Femenía were linking up really well and a lovely ball from Kiko released Ismaila who was brought down on the edge of the box. The resulting free kick from Garner was headed clear by Moore. Each team made a substitute in the last quarter of an hour. First Pack replaced Ojo for the visitors, then Perica came on for Wilmot for the Hornets. The Hornets continued to look for the equaliser as Quina tried a shot from outside the area, it was blocked but Deeney won the header and tried to feed Perica, who was offside. At the other end Ralls unleashed a shot that was high and wide.
Hughes had a brilliant chance from a corner, but his low shot flew wide of the near post when he should have done better. The visitors then made three substitutions in an attempt to waste some time. Ralls, Moore and Wilson were replaced by Bamba, Glatzel and Whyte. There were half-hearted shouts for a penalty when Perica appeared to be sandwiched between two defenders and went down in the box, the referee awarded a free kick to Cardiff and booked the Watford man for diving. While I could accept that he didn’t think that it was a penalty, it certainly wasn’t a dive. As the clock reached 90 minutes, people started leaving. There was four minutes of added time for the Hornets to salvage a point and they had a couple of chances. First Quina won a free kick after a foul by Whyte. He took it himself and his delivery was awful, flying over the bar. Despite being asked to stay in our seats to allow for a controlled exit, people were streaming out at this point. There was one last chance as a Sarr cross found Perica, but he was under the ball and looped it over when he really should have found the net. A great disappointment.
The final whistle went on Watford’s first home defeat of the season which was greeted by boos. I am sure that the players were delighted to have fans back in the stands telling them exactly what they thought of the performance.
I stayed to applaud the team off the pitch and was rewarded with the sight of Troy coming over to chat to a family in the disabled enclosure and then giving them his shirt. At the other end of the pitch, I am told that Ben had given a child his gloves.
It wasn’t a great game. We were much better in the second half when Femenia’s pace certainly added something and some of his interplay with Sarr was a joy to watch. Quina and Hughes also made a difference. Quina was really lively and looked dangerous. Hughes was solid and was encouraging more forward play. But, despite having a lot more shots in the second half, we only managed one on target and that was, yet again, our downfall. But, as I commented at the ground, rubbish football is so much better when you are actually in the ground. I know that at home you have the option to do something else, but I don’t, so I just have the deflation of watching a screen knowing that my shouts of encouragement are only heard by the neighbours and feeling rather deflated. It was such a pleasure to be in the ground and to share the experience with friends. I have really missed that.
I should also mention the efforts that were made by the Watford staff to ensure that we could attend the game safely. The seating was beautifully distanced and the stewards were very helpful in making sure that we got in and out in a safe manner.
Given that my getting a ticket for this game means I won’t be in the draw for the remainder of the games this year, the fixture list means that my next opportunity to see a game live will be in mid-January. Despite the poor performance today, I will be sending in my application as soon as feasible and just hope that the virus will have abated to an extent that more of us can attend in person.
There is nothing like live football with a crowd. I am so glad that it is back.