Tag Archives: Allan Nyom

Quality and Steel under the Lights

Britos on the ball

A month into a new job, I don’t have many regular meetings but one that I do have is on Tuesday from 5 to 6pm.  As the meeting came to a close, I was itching to get away.  When the request was made for any questions, the response of one of my colleagues that she had one immediately took her off my Christmas card list.  As soon as I was able, I made a rapid exit and was at Euston in time for the 18:30.  With a brief stop to check in to my hotel, I made a beeline for the ground.  As I reached the Rookery, it was lovely to see Gifton Noel-Williams outside chatting to someone.  After entering through the turnstiles, I found that the concourse was deserted.  In the stand, my family were in their seats but there were not many others there.  Then I heard Tim on the tannoy announce that it was 25 minutes to kick-off.  No wonder the place was so empty, I was ridiculously early … and I was going to have to watch this game sober, not a prospect I was relishing.  My early arrival did mean that I got to see the warm-up.  The notice on the big screen warning spectators to look out for balls flying into the crowd didn’t prevent a guy in the front of the stand being hit by an errant shot from Capoue.  The Frenchman leaped into the stand in order to apologise.  This had quite an effect on my niece, who is a big fan and came over all unnecessary, “I wish he’d hit me.”  Another off-pitch distraction came by way of my sister’s niece, who is studying for a degree in football broadcasting.  She had enquired about opportunities to gain experience at Watford and had been invited to shadow the media team for this game.  She was thrilled, but I think her aunt(s) were even more excited than she was.

Tom Cleverley

Team news was that Mazzarri had made two changes restoring Deeney and Prödl, both of whom had fitness problems on Saturday, to the starting line-up in place of Okaka and Janmaat.  So the starting XI was Gomes; Cathcart, Prödl, Britos, Holebas; Doucouré, Cleverley, Capoue; Niang, Amrabat; Deeney.  A surprise name on the bench was 18 year-old midfielder, Dion Pereira.  As the opposition team was read out, the loud cheers for Ben Foster were followed by equally loud boos for Allan Nyom.  I missed the visit to West Brom this season, so hadn’t witnessed the incidents that so incensed the travelling fans on that day.  Even so, the reception seemed rather harsh for a player of whom I have fond memories.

The visitors had a great chance to open the scoring in the sixth minute as Chadli ran on to a through ball and broke into the box, Gomes blocked his initial shot but the West Brom man recovered the ball and looked to have an open goal to aim at, but the angle was too narrow and his shot drifted harmlessly across the goal.  It was the home side who took the lead on 13 minutes with a shot from distance from Niang that he curled past Foster into the far corner.  Words cannot do the strike justice, it truly was a thing of beauty and there were no complaints that the replays on the big screen continued until after the restart.

Gathering for a corner

Niang impressed again, showing great resolve as, despite being tripped and lying on the ground, he managed to get a touch to direct the ball to Amrabat whose low cross was just too far in front of Deeney for him to apply the finish.  Niang had another great chance soon after, but this time he volleyed the ball over the target, so the guy in charge of the big screen just showed another replay of his goal.  At the other end, Robson-Kanu met a cross from Chadli with a header that flew wide of the target.  Watford’s next chance came as Amrabat put in a lovely cross that was cleared for a corner with Deeney challenging.  For the Baggies, Chris Brunt really should have done better as the ball came to him in the box, but it bounced down off his chest and Gomes gathered before he could get it under control.  Britos earned the first booking of the game after giving the ball away to McClean, he reacted by taking his opponent down.  As the wall was constructed for the free kick, it seemed that every player apart from the goalkeepers and the taker were involved.  Chadli stepped up and fired over the wall, hitting the outside of the post.  The first card for West Brom came soon after as Robson-Kanu fouled Holebas.  Jose took the set piece himself, delivering a lovely ball into the box but, again, no Watford player was able to get the decisive touch.  Just before half time, Prödl appeared to strain his midriff.  After receiving treatment, I was hoping that he would persevere until half time, but he soon indicated to the bench that he couldn’t continue and was replaced with Janmaat.  As the half came to an end, there were a number of niggly fouls from the visitors which culminated in McClean earning a yellow card for standing on Holebas’s heel.  The half time whistle was greeted with boos from the Rookery but, on this occasion, they were directed at the opposition, who can only be described as classic Pulis.  In contrast, the Hornets had been terrific playing some of the best football we have seen this season.  And that goal ….

Celebrating Deeney’s goal

As Foster took his place in front of the Rookery for the second half, he was given a very warm reception, which he acknowledged.  The visitors made a half time substitution with McLean making way for Phillips, presumably as his antics at the end of the first half suggested that he was at high risk of being sent off.  The second period started perfectly for the Hornets as a lovely pass over the top from Niang reached Deeney, who had two defenders on his case but, as Foster came out to meet him, somehow he managed to connect with the ball and send it into the net.  It was a goal as scrappy as Niang’s had been exquisite, but they all count and the celebrations were mighty.  Chadli had a decent chance to reduce the deficit for the visitors, but turned his shot wide of the near post.  At the other end, a misplaced clearance went straight to Niang, who advanced and tried a shot that was blocked.  The Hornets threatened again as Amrabat played the ball out to Janmaat, who put in a lovely cross, but neither Deeney nor Niang was able to connect.  On 65 minutes, there was a tussle between Britos and Rondon just outside the Watford box.  The West Brom man went down very easily sparking fury in the home crowd as the Uruguayan was shown a second yellow and sent off.

Man of the match Doucoure

For the second game running, Amrabat was substituted after a terrific showing.  This time he made way for Mariappa making his first Premier League appearance since his return to Vicarage Road.  Any concerns that young Ady might be rusty due to his lack of game time disappeared with his first involvement as he met a ball into the Watford box with a confident clearing header.  West Brom had a decent chance to get back into the game as the evil Rondon met a cross from Morrison, but his header was just over the bar.  Success was given his customary ten minutes on the pitch as replacement for Niang whose departure gave the guy running the big screen an excuse to show his goal yet again.  Following the sending off, the Hornets had spent most of the time in their own half, but it had been a sterling rearguard effort with the Baggies rarely threatening the goal.  The effort off the pitch had been equally impressive as the fans in each of the stands were on their feet singing their hearts out for the lads.  As the clock reached 90 minutes, there was little chance of the Hornets getting anything other than a win, but the clean sheet became of paramount importance.  So hearts were in mouths in time added on as a cross reached Nyom at the far post, thankfully his shot rebounded off a team mate to safety.  The former Watford man had another chance to reduce the deficit but, despite having two shots, he couldn’t make the breakthrough as the first was blocked and the second saved by Gomes.  The visitors had one final chance and I punched the air when Morrison put his shot into the Family Stand.

Capoue, Doucoure and Amrabat celebrate in front of the Rookery

At the final whistle, there were great celebrations and hugs in the Rookery and it was lovely to see the players gathering to do a proper lap of honour, enjoying the adulation of the fans.  This had been a truly impressive performance against a decent team who are very adept at stopping other teams playing.  Niang put in a performance showcasing what he can really do and was a joy to watch.  Doucouré was man of the match for an impressive turn running the show in midfield.  Special mention also to Adrian Mariappa, who could be forgiven for struggling when drafted in to a ten man team after so long without a game, but he was excellent.

When Britos was sent off, it seemed disastrous.  But it resulted in a resilient performance from the players and a passionate reaction from the fans, which is always better when played under the lights.

Before the game last Saturday, there was a genuine fear that we could be pulled into a relegation battle.  Three days and six points later we are feeling comfortable in 9th position in the table and Walter Mazzarri is a football genius.  It’s a funny old game.

The Gills Triumph in the League Cup

Guedioura makes amends

Guedioura makes amends

I suspect that I was one of very few people who bought tickets for this game as soon as they went on sale.  My season ticket seat is a couple of seats away from my niece’s.  Since I knew that the guys who sit between us don’t usually attend early League Cup games, I decided to buy their seats instead of mine.  When my sister found out on Monday that she would be able to get leave from work to attend and was able to buy my seat (prime in the middle of the Rookery), it was clear that the attendance at this game would be rather low.  That suspicion was confirmed when the West Herts was relatively empty pre-match and, after Don and Trond left early to go to the ground, I was Franny-no-mates at our usual table.  For this reason, it was a surprise to arrive at the ground twenty minutes before kick-off to see a huge queue at the ticket office.  Sadly, it seems that many fans were not aware that their tickets would not be uploaded to their Season Cards and so faced an irritating and unexpected queue to collect tickets that they thought they already had.

With a new head coach, there is always the question of whether he will make wholesale changes for the early cup games or use them to help the team to gel.  We were given our answer when Mazzarri made nine changes from the Chelsea game with only Guedioura and Deeney keeping their places.  The starting line-up was Pantilimon; Nyom, Hoban, Kabasele; Paredes, Guedioura, Watson, Doucouré, Anya; Deeney and Vydra.  So a chance to see Troy and Matěj teaming up again and it was rather lovely to see Hoban back after so long out injured.

Guedioura on a run

Guedioura on a run

As we waited for kick-off, a lot of balls were flying in to the Rookery, one of which hit a little lad a couple of rows behind me.  I heard applause and then saw Guedioura running up the aisle past us to make sure that the child was OK and give him a ball to take home.  That may well have been the highlight of the evening.

The game started promisingly enough as Anya cut the ball back to Deeney whose snap shot was saved.  At the other end our new defender, Kabasele, made a good start to his debut with a great tackle on Osadebe.  My notes relating to the next twenty minutes tell me that we were making a lot of deep crosses while none of our players were anywhere near the far post.  Watford had a decent chance on the half hour as a shot from Anya was parried and Doucouré hit the rebound from the edge of the area just wide.  Guedioura was the next to threaten the Gillingham goal but, again, shot wide from distance.   Gillingham’s first notable chance came just before half-time but Emmanuel-Thomas fired well wide of the target, so we reached half time goalless.  Watford had been the better side with the majority of the possession, but had rarely tested Nelson in the Gillingham goal.

Celebrating Ighalo's goal

Celebrating Ighalo’s goal

As we started the second half, I had high hopes that we would finally convert our dominance to goals and we started promisingly.  Watson had the first goal attempt of the second period with a shot that flew just over the bar.  Then Hoban met a Paredes cross with a header that was well over the target.  The first substitution came ten minutes into the half as Ighalo replaced Guedioura.  It was an attacking substitution that paid off almost immediately as Deeney chipped a ball over the defence and Ighalo turned it in from close range.  The Hornets should have been two up as Deeney and Vydra combined to find Ighalo in space but his shot was blocked.  That was the Czech’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Capoue.  I felt sorry for Matěj, he had worked hard and was obviously keen to impress.  It had been interesting to see Deeney and Vydra together again.  There were lots of little flicks between them, but they didn’t come to anything and you couldn’t help thinking that Troy was doing his best to help his strike partner to get the goal that he so desperately wanted.  There was very warm applause for Matěj as he left the field which he reciprocated.  Watford should have had a second goal as a header from Hoban was blocked on the line before an attempt at a clearance by a Gillingham defender hit the bar.

Hoban and Kabasele line up for a corner

Hoban and Kabasele line up for a corner

At the other end, a stupid tackle by Nyom on a player who was going nowhere led to a penalty award.  The Rookery started chanting Pantilimon’s name, but he didn’t need to get involved as Dack put the ball into Row Z.  Deeney could have turned the knife with a header from a Paredes cross, but Nelson was equal to it.  Watford were to rue not making the most of their chances as, with eight minutes to go, Byrne hit a shot from distance into the far corner of Pantilimon’s goal.  Watford had a couple of late chances to win the game but Doucouré skyed his shot and then Hoban fired just wide, although the flag was already up for offside.  So Watford had been punished again for dropping deep to preserve a narrow lead and we were to be treated to extra time.

In the first minute of extra time Ighalo should have regained the lead for the Hornets, but his shot was just wide of the near post.  Mazzarri’s second substitution saw Zúñiga replacing Anya and the Colombian could have broken the deadlock but shot just wide.  Against the run of play, it was the visitors who took the lead as the Watford defence failed to deal with a cross, allowing Dack to sneak in to shoot.  Pantilimon appeared to grab the ball but only succeeded in taking it over the line.  This was missed by the linesman but the referee was notified due to the goal line technology and indicated a goal.

Defending a corner

Defending a corner

Watford tried to strike back in the second period of extra time but it wasn’t to be our night as Hoban had another effort cleared off the line and goal machine, Capoue, hit a decent chance high and wide, much to the disappointment of my niece who is a big fan but has yet to see him score.  The final whistle went to a loud chorus of boos.

What is it with Watford and the early rounds of the League Cup?  This is the latest in a long line of dreadful performances.  These games should be an opportunity for fringe players to make a claim for a place but only Kabasele and Hoban really impressed.  Certainly, those who have expressed concern regarding some recent mistakes from Gomes will have derived no comfort from Pantilimon’s showing.  Deeney hasn’t looked himself in the early games this season, although he rarely does when things aren’t going his way.  You can’t help but think that this would have been a good game in which to rest him and give Sinclair a chance to impress.

So we are out of the cup to a League One side and anticipating a visit from Arsenal.  The international break can’t come quickly enough.

 

 

More Joy from Rattigan than the Hornets

Gomes in a kit reminiscent of Steve Sherwood

Gomes in a kit reminiscent of Steve Sherwood

As much as I love both pre-season games and Austria, the late announcement of the fixtures, the fact that they were in the middle of nowhere and a date with the Galway Arts Festival meant that I decided against travelling, so it has been a couple of weeks since I last saw Watford play at Stevenage, a game that was very enjoyable indeed.

On our last visit to Loftus Road, it took a huge diplomatic initiative to get our party into a pub near the ground.  Apart from Pete and Julie who, when asked to produce a QPR season ticket, looked baffled and said they just wanted to have lunch and were escorted to the bar.  So, for this visit, we decided on a venue further back along the Hammersmith and City line.  It was a lovely pub with a pleasant beer garden, decent beer and food.  But I doubt that we will return due to the terrible service at the bar and the meals attracting a 12.5% service charge for someone to deliver the plates to the table.  It was a good thing that the company was so delightful.

I have stopped buying programmes at away games, but usually make an exception for non-league or lower league clubs who could do with the cash.  QPR don’t fall into that category but, had I been tempted, the fact that they were charging £3 for a few pages would have confirmed my decision.

Suarez on the ball

Suarez on the ball

Given the number of new players that have been drafted in over the Summer, I was a little surprised that only Doucouré was included in the starting line-up which was Gomes; Nyom, Cathcart, Britos; Anya, Doucouré, Suárez, Capoue, Holebas; Deeney and Ighalo.  This was my first opportunity to see the players wearing the new home shirt.  I can’t say that it appealed to me on first viewing.  It is very yellow, which is no bad thing, but rather shapeless, so making some of our more stocky players look as if they have been over indulging during their break.  I saw a couple of fans wearing the shirt and it just didn’t look new or original.  But the most interesting talking point of the day regarding kit was the fact that the QPR goalie, Smithies, was in all black, as were the referees.  I was rather confused when I first saw the referee pick up the ball.  Since when has that been allowed?

The game did not start well for the Hornets who could have been two goals down in the first five minutes.  First, Britos lost the ball to Gladwin, who blazed over the bar, provoking chants of “That’s why you’re Championship” from some among the Watford crowd who may have had some pause when, a minute later, Polter headed against the bar.

Juan Camilo Zuniga

Juan Camilo Zuniga

A shot from Chery that flew wide of the near post provoked more derision from the Watford fans, but they were silenced on 20 minutes as Polter hit a lovely shot from just inside the box that beat Gomes.  The goal spurred the Hornets to their first decent goal attempt as Holebas cut the ball back to Deeney, but a QPR defender put him off enough to ensure that he shot past the near post.  On the half hour, there was a rare moment of quality from the Hornets as Doucouré found Capoue who curled a shot wide of the far post.  In the dying minutes of the half, Ighalo met a cross from Anya with a header that flew over the bar and, almost immediately, the Nigerian had another chance with a shot that was cleared off the line.

Despite the late burst of action from the Hornets, the half time verdict was that it had been a shocking display.  Thankfully my mood was improved by bumping into Olly Wicken and having a chat about his new Hornet Heaven podcast.  A request by this Luddite for download instructions was granted and followed up with a link in a tweet, so I now have all four episodes lined up for my commute to work this week (https://audioboom.com/boos/4865618-s1-e1-the-turnaround).

Christian Kabasele

Christian Kabasele

At the start of the second half, we had the opportunity to see a couple of the new recruits as Kabasele and Zuniga joined Amrabat in replacing Nyom, Doucouré and Anya.  There was a lovely move between Amrabat and Zuniga at the start of the half that finished with a cross that was cleared just before Deeney could connect.  But it was a false dawn as we never really looked like getting an equaliser.  The introduction of Pantilimon, Prödl, Watson, Success and Guedioura during the second half had little impact on the proceedings.  The home side increased their lead on 82 minutes as the Watford defence went missing allowing a corner to fly across the box before it was headed home by Washington.  The Hornets finally got the pulses racing in the last minute of the game as Guedioura jinked into the box and unleashed a shot that took a decent save from Smithies to keep out of the net.  Deeney connected with the rebound, but Smithies caught his header.  The final whistle went to some boos in the away end that were as half-hearted as the Watford performance.

At the end of the game, more than one person wished me luck in finding anything to include in a report.  While the results of pre-season games are irrelevant, you do hope to see a team and plan for the upcoming season start to emerge, but this game was totally uninformative.  In fact, we seemed to have gone backwards from the performance against Stevenage, even taking the better quality of the opposition into account.

So back to the pub to meet up with a couple from our party who had left early and so missed the best Watford move of the game.  After the post-mortem I went on to the National Theatre to see The Deep Blue Sea.  The fact that a tale of heartbreak and betrayal lifted my spirits after the match tells you all you need to know about both performances.

Capoue Breaks His Duck

A welcome to Stevenage in the Ladies

A welcome to Stevenage in the Ladies

Pre-season continued on Thursday night in Stevenage.  I was delighted when my final meeting of the day finished early, so I was able to make a quick getaway.  Not so pleased to find that my card wouldn’t work in the ticket machines and the trains were delayed.  Thankfully, a late running train left at the time that I had intended to leave and I was in the pub in Stevenage in plenty of time to meet my companions and have a swift pint or two.  After a dissection of last season and the Euros, we left for the ground.  Having thought that we had left plenty of time before kick-off, we were a bit shocked to arrive at the turnstiles to see huge queues and realize that having pre purchased our tickets was not going to speed our entry to the stadium.  I hate being outside the ground and hearing the whistle go for kick-off, but we were soon inside and took our place in a packed away stand.

Catching up on the team news, I noted that the conspiracy theorists would have been pleased (disappointed?) to see Deeney in the starting line-up replacing Vydra.  The starting XI was Gomes, Nyom, Britos, Hoban, Amrabat, Capoue, Suarez, Berghuis, Holebas, Deeney and Ighalo.

The first half was standard pre-season fare, although Watford did create the best of the chances.  Ighalo had a couple of shots cleared off the line, one of which had he and Deeney in a long discussion with the referee trying to convince him that a hand had kept the ball out of the net.  Capoue also had a couple of decent chances but, in usual fashion, the shots didn’t trouble the goalkeeper.  The referee was allowing the players to get away with some rather robust tackles, which had the consequence that the challenges were getting worse and worse as the half went on, culminating in a nasty looking scissor challenge from Berghuis on Fox that resulted in a spot of handbags.  It was the home side that had the last chance of the half with a shot from Godden that flew just over the bar.

Capoue congratulated on his first goal for the Hornets

Capoue congratulated on his first goal for the Hornets

Watford made four changes at the start of the second half, bringing Arlauskis, Anya, Doucouré and Guedioura on for Gomes, Amrabat, Suárez and Berghuis.  The visitors opened the scoring early in the second half.  I was quite glad that I wasn’t sitting behind the goal at this point as seeing Capoue shape to shoot would likely have meant that I would have ducked and missed the goal.  Instead I was in prime position to see him curl a gorgeous shot past Jones in the Stevenage goal.  The hearty rendition of his song stumbled a bit when it got to “Quique’s man”, but we recovered.  The second half was terrific entertainment.  Watford had chances to increase the lead as Ighalo hit the bar and Deeney was left smiling ruefully as his shot came back off the far post.  Sinclair went on a lovely run before crossing for Deeney, who was frustrated again as Chris Day, who had come on as a substitute, blocked the shot with his feet.  Finding out that Chris is now a veteran of 40 makes me feel very old indeed.  I remember a very young Chris presenting me with a cheque on the pitch when I won the Hornets lottery.  It is very hard to believe that was nearly 20 years ago.  It wasn’t all Watford and Pett had a decent chance to level the score with a shot from the edge of the area, but Arlauskis was equal to it.  The Hornets made certain of the victory in the last minute of the game when Sinclair headed home a lovely cross from Abdi.

Mazzarri expressing his frustration

Mazzarri expressing his frustration

So a perfect pre-season game.  A very entertaining performance on a lovely Summer evening with a couple of goals to savour and a chance to become more familiar with some of the new boys.  The more I see of Doucouré, the more I like him.  He has described himself as a box to box midfielder, which was every apparent in this game and he has a lovely touch.  Sinclair again looked lively and, this time, found the net.  But man of the match was Capoue who put in a typically assured performance topped off with a lovely goal.  Now that he has broken that duck, I hope he is a regular on the scoresheet.  It is early days but this team is shaping up to be quite formidable, which bodes well for the new season.

Mazzarri Braves the Wilds of Woking

Troy and Don discussing pre-season

Troy and Don discussing pre-season

I know that a lot of people have no interest in pre-season friendlies, but I love them.  It is a chance to catch up with old friends, get familiar with current players’ new hair styles and have a first look at any new players.  It is also a chance to watch your team in a game when the result doesn’t really matter, so you can just enjoy yourself.

When I checked Woking FC’s website for directions to the ground, I was a little perturbed to see a statement in bold text stating that, for personal safety reasons, they recommended that ‘unaccompanied women and children’ did not attempt the 15 minute walk from the railway station to the ground but took a taxi instead.  I pondered the danger while remembering walks back to hotels in Burnley and Doncaster after evening games and decided that I would take my chances in Woking.

I am pleased to say that my walk through leafy Surrey passed without incident and, on arrival at the ground, I heard my name called and turned to see Dee and Mike who had just arrived.  When we passed through the turnstiles we spotted Don, Trond and Gavin and all was right with the World.  Prior to kick-off, Don and co. were joined by Troy Deeney who Don quizzed about the pre-season tour.  Troy was not playing because of a knock but said he’d done three training sessions that day.  As always, he was very willing to chat and pose for photos.  One guy asked if he was going to stay.  “I’ve just signed a new contract, what more can I do?”

Poke saving from Britos

Poke saving from Britos

Before the teams were announced, I wondered how many players I would recognize, but the starting line-up contained no newcomers and no new hair styles as Gomes, Nyom, Britos, Hoban, Anya, Capoue, Suarez, Berghuis, Amrabat, Ighalo and Vydra, lined up in a 3-5-2 formation.

We were stationed in the large stand behind the goal that Watford attacked in the first half and, after a quiet start to the game, there was suddenly a flurry of activity in front of us as Britos twice met Berghuis corners with headers, the first of which was cleared off the line, the second saved by the Woking keeper, Poke.  Suarez then tested the keeper with a volley from distance which required a decent save to deny the Spaniard.  Ighalo was the next to threaten from a corner, but I watch goalbound headers from Ighalo more in hope than expectation, so was not surprised to see Poke make the save.

Congratulating Berghuis on his goal

Congratulating Berghuis on his goal

The Hornets took the lead on 20 minutes as Anya cut the ball back to Berghuis whose shot took a deflection and ended up in the back of the net off the gloves of Poke.  It had been all Watford to this point so it was slightly irritating when the home side equalized soon after.  They won a free kick in a dangerous position, Gomes got his hand to the initial shot, but the loose ball was turned in.  I must admit that, at the time, I was rather distracted by the beautiful Red Kite that was soaring over the field, I hope that the same was not the case with the Watford defence.  The visitors had an excellent chance to regain the lead as Ighalo played a one-two with Capoue but his shot was well over the target.  The pitch had been cutting up rather badly so we were then treated to the sight of Capoue on groundsman duty, replacing the divots.  Les Simmons would have been impressed.  Ighalo tried to meet a Berghuis cross with a spectacular shot and missed completely.  In the last minute of the half, Woking had another free kick in a dangerous position but, with no Kite to help, it missed the target.

Suarez, Hoban and Britos

Suarez, Hoban and Britos

The start of the second half saw six substitutions with Arlauskis, Guedioura, Watson and Oularé coming on and a first chance to see Doucouré and Sinclair in Watford shirts.  Sinclair made a lively start as he turned in the box and forced a save before heading a cross from Anya over the bar.  Then Doucouré had a chance with a shot from distance.  Mazzarri made further substitutions during the half with Holebas coming on for Amrabat and Hoban replaced by Success.  The enthusiasm to see the young Nigerian play was slightly tempered by the fact that he was wearing Lloydy’s no 12 shirt (sob!)  Arlauskis was called into action to deal with a cracking shot from Kretzschmar that he parried with both hands.  An assured save that was in contrast to much of his performance.  His tendency to come charging out of goal to intercept balls that the defence is already dealing with was not doing my delicate nerves a lot of good.  Late in the game Britos made a great saving tackle that prevented a goal opportunity for the home side.  Soon after, the final substitution saw the Uruguayan replaced by Charlie Rowan.  The last action of the game was a weak shot from Thorburn that was easily saved by Arlauskis and the game ended in a draw.

Oulare and Doucoure

Oulare and Doucoure

It had been a game of two halves.  The first had been very enjoyable with Watford peppering the Woking goal and being frustrated by a combination of a decent performance from Poke and the 11 men lined up to stop them.  It was a shame that we didn’t make more of the chances, but it was a good run out.  In contrast, the second half was scrappy featuring a number of players who had only met the previous Monday and it showed.  Of the new players, Sinclair looked lively and fashioned a couple of chances.  Doucouré also showed up well, although a few times when he appeared to have an opportunity to shoot, he passed to Success instead.  The Nigerian was given less time to impress and, given that the overall performance was somewhat chaotic when he came on, it was difficult to form an impression.  It was lovely to see Tommy Hoban back in action.  Ighalo and Vydra were both in frustrating mode, although Ighalo had the better of the chances that were created.

As we left the ground, the players who had played in the first half were milling around the car park.  It was a chance for photos with a group who were all on good form.  Ighalo was in a particularly good mood, although his footwear was decidedly dodgy particularly as it was in Luton colours.  After a while, the second half team emerged to get on the team bus.  Last to emerge was Mazzarri, who I was surprised to see surrounded by stewards although a “Welcome to Watford” was greeted with a smile and “Thank-you,” which was repeated by the man that was identified as his translator, just in case I hadn’t understood the first time.

And so the build up to the new season starts.  Who knows what joys and sorrows we have to come, but I am really looking forward to finding out.

Norwich Down but No Thanks to Watford

The teams emerge

The teams emerge

In contrast to the blazing sunshine of Sunday, I arrived in Norwich on a very muggy afternoon.  I had a quick wander around the town and then headed for the pre-match pub to meet up with our much depleted party and the Norfolk ‘Orns.  The pre-match beers in the sunshine, were very enjoyable and we had the added pleasure of cheering the team bus as it passed on its way to the ground.  I must admit that, of the three teams still under threat, Norwich were my first choice for the drop, but I did have to feel sorry for the bloke in the pub who was begging Watford fans for mercy.

When we reached the turnstiles, we encountered a sniffer dog.  I know that it is a no-no, but the hound was so adorable that I asked the handler whether I could pet it.  She asked me, in return, if I would do her a favour and give the dog something to find.  She explained that, when the dogs don’t find anything for a while, they get a bit bored and she wanted to make sure that her charge was still paying attention.  So I was given a scent to put in my pocket and asked to come back in again.  Once I was assured that this plant would not lead to my arrest, I did as she asked and, sure enough, the hound leapt up at me, identified the scent and was suitably rewarded and I got a doggy cuddle.

Team news was only the one change with Nyom coming in at right back and Prödl making way for Cathcart in the centre of defence.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Anya, Cathcart, Britos, Nyom, Jurado, Watson, Suarez, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo.  It was not a selection to quell the doubts of those calling for Quique’s head.

Celebrating the first goal

Celebrating the first goal

The travelling Watford fans started goading their counterparts early on with chants of “We are staying up.”  And the game started rather well for the visitors as Troy had an early shot from distance that the Norwich keeper, Ruddy, just kept out.  We took the lead on 11 minutes as a long ball from Britos was headed down by Deeney to Ighalo, Ruddy smothered his shot, but the ball broke to Deeney who finished into the empty net.  At this stage, it looked as though Norwich could be in for a comprehensive defeat to send them down.  That couldn’t have been further from the truth as, a couple of minutes later, an innocuous looking Norwich attack finished with Redmond exchanging passes with Naismith before scoring through the legs of Gomes.  The home fans started singing “The Great Escape” at this point.  Unbelievably, the home side were 2-1 up soon afterwards as Watford failed to clear the ball allowing Redmond to hit the post and the rebound was buried by Mbokani.  Watford tried to hit back with a ball into the box that was gathered by Ruddy with Deeney challenging.  There was an immediate counter attack which finished with a shot from Redmond that flew just wide.  More lax defending from Watford allowed Redmond to hit the post again, on this occasion the follow-up from Olsson was kept out by a smart save from Gomes.  At this point, there were boos ringing out in the away end.

Watson on the ball

Watson on the ball

Watford gifted Norwich a third in the 37th minute as Watson gave the ball away, Jurado failed to tackle when given the chance and Nyom slipped allowing the ball to run through to Hoolahan, whose cross looked unlikely to trouble the defence until Cathcart intervened to power it past Gomes.  You’d have thought that the Watford team had a bet on Norwich to stay up.  But, soon after the goal, it became apparent that that was out of their hands as a chant of “1-0 to the Sunderland” went up in the away end indicating Sunderland’s breakthrough against Everton.  This was followed by “We are Premier League”.  Hmm, not on the evidence of tonight’s showing.  Watford attacked again as Watson crossed for Deeney but his shot was saved by Ruddy, and the flag was up anyway.  The travelling Hornets continued to console themselves by goading the opposition.  This time with “Burton Albion on a Tuesday night,” which sounded rather appealing to me.  Norwich had a couple more chances before half time.  First Hoolahan played a through ball to Naismith whose shot was saved by Gomes.  Then the Watford keeper was called into action again to stop a long range shot from Hoolahan.  The half time whistle went to boos from the away end.  I never boo my team, but this was one occasion when I had sympathy with those who did.

At half time, I went to chat with Don.  You know that things are not going well when even Don can’t find anything positive to say.  Although he did manage a complaint about the ref, so I knew he was OK.  Our summary of the first half was that the majority of the Watford players were on the beach.

Deeney crosses for the second Watford goal

Deeney crosses for the second Watford goal

Flores made a change at half time bringing Aké on for Nyom.  There was a bright start to the second period as Anya played a ball down the wing to Deeney who cut back for Igahlo to score his fifteenth league goal of the season, which was also his first in the league since January.  The Watford fans greeted the strike with, “We’re gonna win 4-3.”  Flores made his second substitution to loud cheers as Jurado made way for Berghuis.  Norwich nearly did us a favour as a long ball from Abdi was headed back towards Ighalo by Deeney and Bennett’s attempt to clear flew just over the bar.  As it happened, it wouldn’t have counted as he was deemed to have been fouled by the Nigerian.  Norwich scored their fourth just before the hour mark as Redmond played a through ball to Mbokani, who dinked it over Gomes.  The Norwich fans were doing an impressive job of supporting their team despite knowing that Sunderland were three goals up against Everton, so their fate was sealed.  Watford attempted to hit back as Berghuis found Abdi but the shot was just wide of the far post.  Watson was booked for a frustrated tackle on Naismith and, soon after, made way for Guedioura.  While Norwich’s first change saw Brady coming on for Hoolahan.  The home fans continued their impressive support with a chant of “One Alex Neil”.

Berghuis, Guedioura and Abdi discuss a free kick

Berghuis, Guedioura and Abdi discuss a free kick

An extended period of possession for the Hornets finished with Abdi exchanging passes with Berghuis before hitting a volley straight at Ruddy.  I thought that Norwich should have been awarded a penalty as Naismith was tripped in the box, but the referee waved play on.  Soon after, the Scotsman was replaced by Odjidja-Ofoe and Jarvis came on for the excellent Redmond.  Late in the game, Aké was booked for a stupid tackle on Mbokani.  There was a great chance for Watford to strike back after Abdi was fouled on the edge of the box.  But the ball was placed considerably further back for the free kick and Guedioura hit it into Row Z, summing up the evening.  A cross into the Norwich box was met by the head of Anya but he could only direct it back to Ruddy.  Then Deeney had one last chance to cut the deficit with a shot from outside the area that Ruddy spilled towards the goal, but managed to recover.  In the last minute I, again, thought that we had conceded a penalty, but the trip was outside the area and the free kick was straight into the Watford wall.  It was a relief when the final whistle went.

Ighalo

Ighalo

I usually take defeats in my stride and try to take positives from any game.  But my patience ran out last night.  The dedicated souls who travelled to Norwich took time off work, spent a lot of money on travel, tickets and, in many cases, hotels and were rewarded with an abject performance from a bunch of lads who looked like they were on holiday.  I can take being beaten by a better team, but not such a sub-par performance from players who are so much better than that.   I was so irate that, as Britos came over to offer his shirt to a fan I found myself shouting “It’s your pay packet you should be giving us, not your shirt”.  To be fair, the young girl who went home with the shirt was very happy indeed.  The most shocking aspect of the evening was the performance of the defence, which has been excellent for most of the season, but played like clowns on the evening.  Even Gomes had a very rare off day.  Deeney was the only player to come out of the game with any credit.  I’m sure I will calm down by Sunday and, of course, I will be at Vicarage Road to support the lads in the last game of what has been a very successful season.  I just hope they end on a high.

So Near and Yet So Far

The Watford singing section at Wembley

The Watford singing section at Wembley

I woke up on the day of the semi-final feeling very nervous.  Most weeks I don’t get my hopes up and don’t take defeats too badly as there is always next week, but we have only reached the FA Cup final once in our history so the result of this match mattered ….. a lot.  Getting ready to leave for the game takes on ridiculous levels of obsession with tiny details.  Is this an appropriate top to wear?  Have my Watford socks with the mismatched colours at the top been lucky or unlucky?  Did I start wearing my warm coat before our form dipped?  So many questions with inconclusive answers.  In the end, the most important things were to remember my ticket and my yellow shirt, but the sartorial decisions nagged at me.

As most of our group were not travelling through Watford, we decided to meet in the Marylebone area which began to look like a very bad idea when the tube filled up with Palace fans at Green Park and they all piled off at Baker Street, which was teeming with people dressed in red and blue.  For the second cup game in a row, the choice of pre-match pub was a failure.  This time it was closed completely.  We ended up in a fine dining establishment that was happy to accommodate those who wanted only to drink.  I must say that I consumed what was probably my most expensive pre-match meal ever, but it was delicious.  On the walk to the station, it was disappointing to be taunted by a young child about what happened three years ago.  He was wise to hide behind his father’s legs

Deeney leads the team out at Wembley

Deeney leads the team out at Wembley

A game at Wembley really should end with the presentation of a trophy, I am not a fan of using it as a venue for the semi-finals.  So even entering the ground had a sense of anti-climax.  Earlier in the day, mention had been made of friends who had to miss the game for various reasons and someone expressed the opinion that it wasn’t such a huge deal as, if we lost, you wouldn’t want to have been there and, if we won, there would be another trip to Wembley for the final.

A key question regarding the team selection was the choice of goalkeeper.  I would have picked Gomes, who has been immense this season, but Flores chose to keep faith with Pantilimon who played in the earlier rounds of the cup.  So the starting XI was Pantilimon, Aké, Cathcart, Britos, Nyom, Jurado, Watson, Capoue, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo.

As we gathered in the concourse before the game, it was lovely to see one of my all-time Watford heroes, Nigel Gibbs, was also in attendance.

Prior to kick-off, there was a great display of red and blue foils in the Palace end,  they do that sort of thing so well, but we are fortunate that a sea of yellow shirt is always striking.

Challenging for a corner

Challenging for a corner

Following complaints about the lack of atmosphere among the Watford fans at the play-off final, a singing section had been designated in the lower tier behind the goal and it was great to see them bouncing early doors.  Sadly Palace took the lead on 6 minutes as a corner was flicked on to the far post where Bolasie headed the ball past Pantilimon.  At that point it already felt as though this was going to be a long afternoon.  But Watford rallied and a nice passing move finished with Jurado trying a shot from distance that was blocked.  Then Ighalo laid the ball off to Deeney who tried a shot more in hope than expectation and it flew well over the bar.  Another nice attacking move saw Jurado find Abdi whose shot was blocked.  During our pre-match discussions, John had commented that our third most prolific goal scorer of the season was ‘OG’ and we nearly benefitted again as Ward almost turned a cross from Nyom past Hennessey but it went just the wrong side of the post.  At the other end a cross from Cabaye was punched clear by Pantilimon.  The same player threatened again with a free-kick that was comfortably caught by the Watford keeper.  Before the half hour mark, Capoue went down with an injury that required a long period of treatment.  He tried to continue, but soon collapsed and had to be taken off on a stretcher, which is always sad to see.

GT in his role of pundit at half time

GT in his role of pundit at half time

Despite it being clear for some time that Capoue would not be able to continue, there was a delay between him being carried off and his replacement taking the field, which was odd as Suárez had pulled on his shirt but remained sitting in the dugout rather than being ready on the sidelines.  Watford continued to attack without really threatening the Palace goal as a Watson free kick reached Deeney who moved it on towards Ighalo but a defender made the block before the Nigerian could reach the ball.  Jurado turned and fired goalwards but, again, it was blocked, this time by Delaney who was knocked to the ground by the force of the shot.  The first caution of the game went to Jurado for a foul on Zaha.  Nyom whipped a lovely cross into the Palace box, but Hennessey caught the ball before Ighalo could get to it.  Watford were lucky not to concede a penalty just before half time as a cross from Zaha hit Ake’s arm but the referee was unsighted and signaled a corner.

So we reached the interval, a goal down.  It was interesting to read my notes again as they indicate that Watford had a lot of the play in the first half and, following the early goal, there had been little threat from Palace.  But the mood among the Watford fans was dark as, despite our possession, we had never looked like scoring.  Our attacks had been ponderous and ineffectual while the Palace wingers, when they did attack, looked very dangerous.  It felt like 2013 all over again.  However, we have had a number of games this season in which we improved considerably after the break and I clung to the hope that this would be one of them.

Celebrating the equalizer

Celebrating the equalizer

Watford made a promising start to the second half with an early chance from a Nyom cross which Deeney headed over the bar under challenge.  But that was followed by a scare at the other end as Bolasie rode a tackle from Britos and it took a good save from Pantilimon to prevent him from increasing the Palace lead.  A Watford free kick was taken short by Abdi to Watson whose shot was deflected off the wall for a corner.  This led to our equalizer as Deeney met Jurado’s delivery to head past Hennessey and send the Watford fans wild.  You could see how much it meant to him as he ran to our corner to celebrate.  All of a sudden both spirits and voices rose among the Watford fans and Flores reacted by replacing Abdi with Guedioura.  Abdi had been wasted out on the wing, so this felt like a positive change.  Sadly, we were only level for six minutes.  Souaré was the first to try to restore the Palace lead with a shot from outside the box that was high and wide.  But the man from Senegal turned provider crossing for Wickham who lost Aké and rose to head home.  Watford tried to strike back again as Guedioura crossed for Ighalo, but the ball flew over his head to Hennessey.  Deeney found himself in space and really should have tried a shot, but hesitated allowing the defence to regroup so he passed to Jurado, who found Suárez, whose shot was blocked.

Watson lines up a free kick

Watson lines up a free kick

Pardew’s first substitution saw Bolasie make way for McArthur.  The big screen announced the substitution and illustrated it with footage of the first goal.  Thanks for that.  Jurado crossed for Deeney, but his header back across goal was easy for Hennessey.  Then a dangerous run by Zaha into the Watford box seemed to spell disaster, but the defence closed him down before he could shoot.  The second substitution for Palace saw Sako come on for Puncheon.  The Hornets had a great chance to equalize as Deeney flicked a header on to Ighalo but the Nigerian’s shot from close range flew over the bar.  Flores made his final change with 7 minutes remaining bringing Anya on for Nyom.  Jurado fashioned another chance as a corner was cleared to him but Hennessey was equal to his shot.  Palace’s final substitution saw Adebayor on for Wickham so, again, we had a replay of a goal plus the prospect of Adebayor scoring against us again.  It was nearly game over as Guedioura gave the ball away to Zaha but, thankfully, he shot into the side netting.  The announcement of five minutes of added time was greeted with cheers and encouragement from the Watford fans and boos from the Palace end.  The first minute of time added on saw Ighalo directing a cross from Jurado out to Guedioura whose shot was agonizingly just wide of the target.  Watford had one final chance as Guedioura tried to find Ighalo in the box, but he was unable to connect and Palace booked their place in the final.

Deeney put in a captain's performance

Deeney put in a captain’s performance

It was a frustrating afternoon.  Palace’s run in the second half of this season has been as poor as ours so this was a very winnable tie but we struggled in the first half with the early goal sapping spirits on and off the pitch.  There was an improved performance in the second period but, apart from a short spell around the time the equalizer was scored, we never looked like winning the game.

The queue to get into the station after the game was immense and slow moving and it took forever to get on a train, which I then had to share with Palace fans as I travelled south.  I put my shirt and scarf away and tried to block out their chat about going to the final, but I was very glad finally to get on my train home.

Generally I try to take positives from games, but it is hard on an afternoon like this.  I can take a defeat if we have given our all and were beaten by a better team, but I came away from Wembley thinking that, given the talent in our squad, we should have done better.  If you had told me in August that we would retain our status in the Premier League and reach the FA Cup semi-final, I would have been thrilled.  But that defeat will hurt for some time.

Gomes the Hero as We Hit Forty Points

A lovely welcome from the Baggies

A lovely welcome from the Baggies

After a brighter performance against Everton last week, we travelled in the hope that we would finally get the points to take us over the magical 40 mark.  I thought I had got to the pre-match pub at the crack of dawn, but there was already a table full of the usual suspects to greet me and more soon joined us for our usual friendly gathering.  I hadn’t really marked West Brom out as a bogey side until a Birmingham-based friend pointed out that we hadn’t beaten them in the league since 1995.  Pre-match discussions harked back to the meeting in our first home game of the season where a spirited performance from the Hornets had been met by negative opponents who shut us down.  It was a frustrating game and we hoped for better in the return.

In the early game on Saturday, Sunderland had beaten Norwich.  I must admit that I was torn over this result.  I would rather have a trip to Sunderland than Norwich next season and the Sunderland win meant that the gap between us and fourth from bottom remained the same, but they were now closer to our points tally.  Of course, Sunderland’s win would be irrelevant if we got three points at the Hawthorns, but none of us were confident about that.

As we waited for the train to the Hawthorns at Snow Street, there were a couple of locals chanting “Elton John’s a homosexual” and I began to think I was in an episode of Life on Mars.

Watson on the ball

Watson on the ball

After the now customary bag search and pat down, we entered the ground.  In line with a number of clubs, West Brom put posters in the away end thanking the travelling fans for making the journey, but I thought it was a really nice touch that they also wished us luck in the semi-final next week.

Team news was that Flores made four changes with Nyom, Prödl, Aké and Guedioura, making his first start of the season, in for Paredes, Cathcart, Holebas and Behrami.  So the starting XI was Gomes, Aké, Britos, Prödl, Nyom, Jurado, Watson, Capoue, Guedioura, Deeney and Ighalo.  Former loanee, Ben Foster, started for the Baggies and was given a tremendous welcome by the travelling Hornets.

There was a slow start to the game, the first goal attempt falling to the home side on 12 minutes with a shot from Rondón that was high and wide.  Watford’s first chance came as Jurado went on a run and squared for Guedioura whose shot from distance was just wide of the near post.

The Guedioura corner that led to the goal

The Guedioura corner that led to the goal

The next chance fell to Sessegnon whose initial shot was punched by Gomes, his follow-up was over the bar.  Guedioura played a square ball to Jurado whose shot was straight at Foster.  On 27 minutes, Watford took the lead with their first shot on target.  Guedioura had done well to win a corner, from which his delivery was disappointing, but groans in the away end soon changed to cheers as Watson volleyed the ball in off the far post.  Up to that point, there had been an angry atmosphere among the Watford fans, but that was supplanted with some joyful bouncing.  Sadly they undid all that good work with the most unsupportive chant.  Why anyone chooses to sing, “How shit must you be, we’re winning away,” baffles me.  The Baggies tried to fight back through McClean, but his shot was wide of the target.  The first booking of the game went to Watford’s Britos, who was beaten by Rondón, so decided to take him down and deserved the card.  The resulting free kick was hit straight at the Watford wall.  Deeney played a lovely ball to Jurado who cut it back for Aké, but the youngster’s shot was well over the target.  Then a ball over the top to Rondón came to nothing as Gomes came out to gather.  The last chance of the half came after Jurado gave the ball away in the box but, thankfully, Berahino shot wide of the target.

Celebrating Ben Watson's strike

Celebrating Ben Watson’s strike

It had been a dreadful first half.  An end of season game between two clubs with nothing to play for, although many Watford fans were of the opinion that we could still find ourselves fighting relegation.  It was obvious that the Watford players were not taking any risks with an FA Cup semi-final looming on the horizon, and they cannot be blamed for that, but it didn’t explain the West Brom performance.

The first chance of the second half fell to West Brom, but McClean shot wide of the near post.  Then Guedioura went on a promising run which he spoiled with a dreadful cross.  West Brom had a great chance to draw level as McAuley met a free kick with a header that was tipped over the bar by Gomes.  Watford then had a chance to increase their lead as Guedioura found Deeney in space, but Troy’s shot was pushed over the bar by Foster.  The same two players combined for the next chance as Deeney met a Guedioura cross with a header that was blocked.  At the other end, a West Brom corner was met by the head of Rondón but Gomes was down to gather the ball.  Jurado passed to Aké on the overlap but his cross was straight at Foster.

Gomes having saved a penalty

Gomes having saved a penalty

There were boos in the away end as Flores made his first substitution bringing Suárez on for Guedioura, who is much loved among Watford fans, many of whom have yet to warm to either Jurado or the Algerian’s replacement.   On 67 minutes, it looked as if Watford’s luck had run out as Berahino broke into the box, Gomes dived to save at his feet and brought the striker down.  The referee pointed to the spot and showed the Watford keeper a yellow card.  Berahino stepped up to take the penalty himself, placing his shot to Gomes’ right, but the Watford keeper saved the effort and the follow-up was blocked before Rondón shot over the target.  The celebrations in the away end included a smoke bomb, making a nonsense of the searches that we all underwent on the way into the stadium.  Tony Pulis immediately made a double substitution bringing McManaman and Anichebe on for Chester and Rondón.  Watford attacked again as Deeney found Ighalo in the box, but the Nigerian made a poor pass and the chance was lost.  Then Capoue went on a great run before playing a cross field ball to Jurado whose shot was caught by Foster.  For the home side, Dawson tried a shot from the edge of the area which flew over the bar.  West Brom’s final substitution saw Gardner come on for Yacob.  Jurado had another chance to make the win secure, but his shot from the edge of the box flew over the bar.

Prodl heads goalwards

Prodl heads goalwards

Ighalo won a free kick which was taken quickly, a poor decision since the Watford players weren’t ready and the ball was given away.  Berahino hit what looked like a poor shot, but it was looping over Gomes who had to tip it over the bar.  With four minutes remaining, Capoue tripped Sessegnon in the box and the referee pointed to the spot again.  The yellow card on this occasion went to Deeney for his protests.  As Berahino stepped up again, I was willing him to put the penalty high or wide, but I had reckoned without the brilliance of Gomes who dived to his left to make another save.  At this point I must apologise to the family who were sitting in front of me as the only reaction that seemed appropriate, after a hug with Jacque, was leaping up and down like a madwoman screaming “You F***ing beauty.”  It would have been nice to add another goal, and Watford fashioned a chance on the stroke of 90 minutes as Ighalo played the ball back to Suarez but the Spaniard skyed his shot.  In time added on, Flores made another substitution replacing Jurado with the more defensive Behrami.  West Brom had one final chance to grab a point as Dawson shot over the bar.  This proved to be the last kick of the game and the final whistle was greeted with loud cheers and chants of “We are staying up.”  Whilst I have been convinced that we were safe since we hit 37 points, I was singing as loud as anyone and found myself strangely choked up.  On the pitch, there were hugs between the players after the final whistle and it was rather lovely to see Gomes congratulated so warmly by Ben Foster.  As the players reached the corner housing the travelling Hornets, the stand rang out with “Heurelho Gomes baby” and the heroic keeper showed his gratitude to the fans.

Gomes, Man of the Match and the Season

Gomes, Man of the Match and the Season

Once the players had left the pitch it seemed to take an age to leave the ground.  The home stands were completely empty some time before we were able to move from our seats in the second row from the back.  Someone suggested that Gomes was at the bottom of the gangway with his arms outstretched declaring, “You will not pass.”  It had not been a pretty game to watch, but that mattered little now that we were in 12th position with 41 points.

On the train on the way home I took the unusual decision (for me) of going to my assigned seat only to find Miles Jacobson was sitting opposite and when my friend, Toby, arrived to sit on the other side of the aisle I found myself with delightful company for the journey home.  Until we arrived at Coventry, that is, and the carriage was invaded by Millwall fans who continued the throwback to the seventies theme with their chanting.

So the upcoming week sees a trip to West Ham which, as it will be Watford reserves against a team still fighting for a place in Europe, is not likely to be a lot of fun.  But that fades into insignificance against the prospect of a very winnable FA Cup semi-final.  Palace are always tricky opponents, but we have to go into that game hoping for a performance on a par with that at the Emirates.  These are good times to be a Watford fan.

A Day to Forget at the Emirates

Welcome to the Clock End

Welcome to the Clock End

Groundhog Day.  Three weeks after the trip to the Emirates for the FA Cup match, we were back in the league.  We arrived for pre match drinks to see a couple of early arrivals and, as time went on, others arrived and we gathered a good group before leaving for the game.  My niece, Amelia, was present for the pre-match festivities and I looked at her surrounded by all the old folk and commented, “This is the worst part of your day.”  How wrong I was.

On the tube to Arsenal, I met a former colleague.  After catching up on our career moves since last we met, he asked my prediction for the game.  “We won’t win.”

Arsenal’s new home is a bit of an oddity.  As you emerge from Arsenal station, it feels like a proper old school ground with narrow streets and lots of food outlets, as well as the requisite ticket touts.  Then you turn a corner and are faced with the bright shiny new stadium, which is an estate in and of itself.  As you walk past the statues and the celebratory cladding on the stadium, you have to weave in and out of the tourists taking selfies, something that would never have happened when we were regulars in the 80s.  We made our way to the away turnstiles to be greeted with a sign welcoming us.  Again, I couldn’t help thinking that wouldn’t have happened in the 80s.

Daddy and mascot Myles

Daddy and mascot Myles

As we found our seats in the stand, one immediately apparent difference from the cup game was that, due to the smaller allocation, we were only allocated seats in the lower tier, which has very shallow raking and would not be my choice.  Our one benefit was that we were near the corner flag so at least had some view of the game.

Team news was that Flores had made three changes bringing Prödl, Watson and Abdi in for Britos, Behrami and Jurado.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Aké, Cathcart, Prödl, Nyom, Suárez, Watson, Capoue, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.  Former loanee, Hector Bellerin, started for the Gunners and it has been a delight to see him establishing himself in the first team as that has been a rare experience for our former loanees from the ‘Top 4’.

As the teams came out I didn’t see the Watford mascot and it was only as they were kicking about that it was apparent that Myles Deeney had accompanied his Dad on to the pitch.  I was a bit disappointed that the only photo that I had was of the two of them walking away from me for the coin toss.  The disappointment disappeared when I saw the photo of Myles with “Daddy 9” on his shirt.  How lovely.

Ake takes a throw

Ake takes a throw

The Arsenal onslaught started in the first minute with the first real threat on goal being an early cross that was taken off the head of Welbeck by Cathcart.  But the Gunners were ahead on 4 minutes as a cross from Iwobi found Sánchez in space, Gomes saved the header but Alexis buried the rebound.  It was not a good start but, even that early in the game, it had been coming.  Watford spirits rose briefly as Suárez went on a run but his cross went begging as there was nobody in the box to meet it.  Arsenal had another decent chance, but this time Monreal headed a cross from Sánchez over the bar.  Then Welbeck broke into the box but his shot was between the legs of Nyom, which slowed it, allowing Gomes to gather easily.  Arsenal could have been two up when Welbeck played the ball back to Iwobi but his shot was stopped by a terrific save from Gomes who tipped it clear.  Arsenal had yet another chance as Özil played the ball back to Welbeck whose shot was deflected just wide.  So, with 15 minutes gone, the home side could have been three goals ahead.  Watford finally had an attempt on goal as Deeney connected with a cross from Nyom, but the shot was straight at Ospina.  Arsenal threatened again from a free kick that Sánchez curled over the wall and Gomes had to push to safety.  Just before the half hour, Suárez found Deeney who played a ball over the top to Ighalo but the Nigerian was offside.

Watson lays the ball off to Guedioura

Watson lays the ball off to Guedioura

At the other end, Welbeck squared a ball for Sánchez, but Cathcart was on hand to clear.  A rare foray into the Arsenal half saw Nyom cross for Abdi who was stretching to meet the ball and couldn’t manage a shot.  Arsenal had completely dominated the half but, just as it appeared that we would reach half time trailing by a single goal, Sánchez received the ball in space in the Watford box before cutting it back to Iwobi who buried the ball past Gomes.   Watford did try to strike back but Watson’s header down to Deeney found the striker in an offside position.  Flores made a substitution just before half time as Anya replaced Capoue who, due to his history with Spurs, left the field to boos from the home fans.  Arsenal had a late chance to increase their lead but Iwobi’s shot from outside the box was easy for Gomes.

It had been a terrible half for the Hornets who had shown next to nothing, but were being taken apart by an excellent Arsenal team.  Last Tuesday I joined Jeff Stelling’s Men United March for Prostate Cancer UK, where we walked from Kenilworth Road to the Vic via Clarence Park.  The From the Rookery End guys had arranged to meet me for an interview at half time so I had little time to brood.

Waiting for the ball to drop

Waiting for the ball to drop

Due to the interview, I missed the start of the second half.  As I returned to my seat, I witnessed Anya winning a corner, but it was a poor delivery from the normally reliable Watson.  Soon after Amrabat, who had replaced Ighalo at the start of the half, went on a decent run but shot wide of the near post.  The home side then increased their lead as a shot from Bellerin took a nasty deflection to beat Gomes.  The Gunners had a great chance to increase their lead further a couple of minutes later but Iwobi’s shot came back off the crossbar and Özil put the rebound wide.  Gomes was in action again soon after as, first, a shot from Özil was saved by his feet, then a curling shot from Sánchez was parried, finally a header from Welbeck that flew straight into the keeper’s arms.   There was a brief respite for Watford fans as Suárez found Amrabat, but he was at a narrow angle when he shot so it drifted out for a throw.  Watford’s best chance of the game came on 56 minutes as Deeney met a Watson free kick with a header on to Prödl whose header was cleared off the line by Monreal.  The clearance fell to Aké whose shot was wide of the far post.  The first booking of the game went to Nyom for a kick on Özil that was borne of frustration.  There was a substitution for each side on 69 minutes as Abdi made way for Guédioura while Giroud replaced Welbeck.  The Arsenal substitution provoked the comment from the guys behind me that it wasn’t getting any easier.

Guedioura taking a corner

Guedioura taking a corner

Almost immediately there was another decent chance for the visitors as Aké crossed for Deeney who turned and unleashed a shot that required a good save from Ospina to keep his clean sheet.  At the other end, an Arsenal corner was met by a header from Giroud, but Gomes was equal to it.  Wenger made another change bringing Walcott on for Iwobi.  Another brief moment of positivity from the visitors as a cross from Aké was met by an overhead kick by Deeney which Amrabat was just unable to reach and so the ball went out for a goal kick.  Arsenal’s final change saw Campbell replacing Sanchez.  Watford had been brighter since the break and Amrabat came charging into the Arsenal box with Anya alongside him, but his pass was disappointingly short and went out for a goal kick.  Elneny stopped a break by Amrabat and was booked for his trouble.  Watson played the free kick short to Guédioura whose shot was deflected wide.  From the corner, Guédioura hit a shot from distance that went just wide of the near post.  Another Watford chance went begging as a cross fom Amrabat reached Anya, who opted to head back across goal instead of trying to hit the target and the ball was cleared.  Arsenal scored their fourth goal on 90 minutes as Campbell crossed for Walcott who finished past Gomes.

Ake on the wing

Ake on the wing

It was a relief for the travelling support when the final whistle went and, despite the poor performance, the players were applauded off with chants of “Wemberley” ringing in their ears.  It is hard to critique a game like that as, bad as Watford were, they were playing an Arsenal team who were on fire and, we were never going to be able to compete with that.  Arsenal had shown plenty of skill in our cup game, but there had been a lack of organisation and leadership.  In this game, they fought for everything and their passing was incisive, meaning we had no chance.  As an Arsenal fan, you would have to ask why they couldn’t have put that performance in during the cup game, which was their last realistic chance of silverware.

We walked back down the Caledonian Road to convene for our post match drinks.  The game had not been fun to watch, but it was never one that we would expect to win so there were no recriminations.  It was the first real tonking that we had experienced and that fact alone makes this season a success so far.  I was also interested to note that, despite complaints of recent relegation form (and it has been awful), there are still three teams below us in the table who have a worse record over the last 10 games.  So, while we can’t be complacent, relegation still looks highly unlikely and we have a cup semi-final to look forward to.  However you look at this, it remains our most successful season since the 80s.

 

1987 All Over Again

The pre match huddle

The pre match huddle

The build-up to this game had been distinctly odd.  There was some annoyance when the draw for the quarter final paired us against the winner of the only game in the previous round that required a replay.  This irritation was exacerbated by the fact that there was a full Premier League programme in the midweek that the replay would normally have been played, meaning that we only knew our opponents late on the Tuesday night prior to the quarter final weekend.  Hearts, if not wallets, wanted an away tie at Hull, but Arsenal’s comprehensive win meant that wouldn’t be the case, so we had an easy journey but considerably more formidable opponents.  Watford committed to take an allocation of 9000 tickets which, with only 4 days to sell them, was a risk as they were committed to pay for them.  They also subsidised the cost of adult tickets in the upper tier, so made a financial commitment towards ensuring that a large number of fans followed the team and that faith was repayed with a high take up and only around 700 tickets remaining unsold.

Social media indicated that there was a lot of excitement building up before the tie.  But I was not relishing the prospect.  Much as I enjoyed reliving the 1987 win in the build-up to the match, while wondering how we escaped Highbury in one piece.  That win was not unexpected as we always beat Arsenal in those glory years.  This season they are a different proposition and, while they lack consistency, the comprehensive defeat at Vicarage Road filled me with pessimism for the outcome and meant that I awoke on Sunday morning with a feeling of impending doom.

Lovely Paddy Rice

Lovely Paddy Rice

The day did not start well as we arrived at the pre-match pub to find that they were only serving soft drinks until midday and we could not move on as this was the designated venue for distributing the tickets for the City ‘Orns.  Given the state of my nerves, a caffeinated beverage would not have been a good idea, so I was parched by the time all tickets had been collected and we only had time for a swift pint at Kings Cross before leaving for the match.  The tube journey was remarkable only for the delightfully polite and gracious Arsenal fans that we met on the way.  It is always a pleasure to go to an away ground and feel like a guest rather than the enemy.  On arrival at the stadium, as we walked around to get to the away turnstiles, I was drawn to the photo of lovely Pat Rice, a man who is, deservedly, a legend at both clubs.

As the inclusion of Pantilimon in goal had been announced earlier in the week, it was a surprise when Gomes was named in the starting line-up.  However this was corrected prior to kick-off, and there were 3 further changes from the last game with Cathcart, Behrami and Guedioura in for Holebas, Suarez and Amrabat.  So we started with Pantilimon, Aké, Cathcart, Prödl, Nyom, Behrami, Watson, Guedioura, Deeney, Capoue and Ighalo.

Arsenal started the game very brightly, and crafted a chance in the first couple of minutes as Chambers put in a dangerous cross that was just missed by Sánchez.  Watford, in contrast, looked nervous and some sloppy play almost put us in trouble on 9 minutes as Watson gave the ball away, Prödl missed a chance to clear and allowed Sánchez to play a through ball to Giroud, but the flag was up before he slotted it past Pantilimon.  Watford’s first chance came soon after through Ighalo, but his shot was blocked.  Capoue had the next chance as a cross from Nyom was headed back by Deeney, but he was unable to shoot and, given his misfortune in front of goal, would probably have missed anyway.

Guedioura and Nyom appearing pensive

Guedioura and Nyom appearing pensive

Ighalo got the ball in the box again, but held onto it a little too long, losing out in a tackle when Deeney was in space.  For the home side, Chambers hit another cross, but this one was an easy catch for Pantilimon.  Gibbs was the next to threaten with a cross that caused some panic in the Watford box, but the danger was snuffed out by a decisive tackle from Aké.  Ighalo was frustrated again as he tried to latch on to a Deeney header, but the keeper, Ospina, was first to the ball.  Arsenal had been a constant danger down the right and Chambers threatened again, but his cross was safely gathered by Pantilimon.  At the other end, Guedioura whipped in a cross which was caught by Ospina, with Deeney lurking just behind him.  Then Capoue played a lovely ball to Ighalo and the man who never passes opted to play the ball towards Deeney, allowing Mertesacker to intercept, while every fan in the away end was devastated that, for once, he hadn’t gone for goal himself when it seemed the better option.  Just before the half hour, what appeared from our vantage point to be a 50-50 challenge in the middle of the pitch, left Deeney needing treatment.  Replays showed that Gabriel had launched a two footed tackle on the Watford captain, who was lucky to avoid serious injury while the Arsenal man was fortunate still to be on the pitch.  The home side had a decent chance to take the lead as a corner was cleared to Elneny who shot over the bar with a horrible miskick.  Capoue released Ighalo who, again, passed instead of shooting, this time a dreadful ball that rolled behind Deeney so the chance was gone.  One of our party declared that he was doing it deliberately so that nobody would ever again berate him for shooting instead of passing to a team mate.  Aké was nutmegged by Özil who found Elneny but the Egyptian, again, shot over from the edge of the box.  Arsenal had one last chance to go in at the break with a lead as Campbell got behind the defence, but Pantilimon was able to put him off and he fired over the target.

The celebration for Ighalo's goal

The celebration for Ighalo’s goal

So we reached the break goalless.  Arsenal had much the better of the first half and had looked very dangerous on the break.  There had been far too many misplaced passes from the Hornets.  Particular culprits were Prödl, who appeared to have put his boots on the wrong feet, and Guedioura, who was looking very rusty.  However the Gunners had failed to capitalize on the mistakes from Watford and neither goalkeeper had faced a shot worthy of the name.

The home side came out early for the second half and they had the first chance with a corner from Özil that was headed over by Giroud.  But it was Watford who took the lead on 50 minutes.  It started with a dangerous cross from Guedioura which was taken off the head of Deeney and put out for a throw-in, which Aké took, it was headed on by Deeney to Ighalo who held off the defender, turned and fired past Ospina to send the away end into rapture.  It was so good to see Ighalo on the score sheet again and a joy that the players were celebrating directly in front of the away fans.  The goal unnerved Arsenal and injected a new confidence into the visitors and Ighalo could have had a second soon after as a Nyom cross was headed down by Deeney but, this time, Ighalo shot over the bar.  Just before the hour, Deeney and Ighalo came storming up the field with a lovely exchange of passes, it was a great shame when a tackle stopped the break.

Pantilimon lines up a goal kick

Pantilimon lines up a goal kick

There was another great chance for the Nigerian as Capoue released Aké who broke forward and crossed for Ighalo but he couldn’t quite connect.  It wasn’t all Watford, though, as a cross from Campbell found Giroud whose close range shot was stopped by a decent save from Pantilimon.  The second goal was a thing of beauty.  Deeney did tremendously well to hold the ball up in the box then he passed it out to Guedioura and WELLY!!!  The shot nearly burst the net and would have knocked out someone in the upper tier if it had.  If the first goal celebration had been joyous, this one was truly mental and, suddenly, the Watford fans started thinking that we could actually win this, and those of us who had been calling for Adlene’s replacement were left with egg on our faces.  Arsenal had a rare second half foray into the Watford box as a Sánchez shot was deflected wide before Giroud’s volley from the corner missed the target.  Wenger had seen enough and made three substitutions with a quarter of the game remaining as Elneny, Campbell and Giroud were replaced by Iwobi, Welbeck and Walcott.  Soon after, Flores also rang the changes replacing Capoue and Guedioura, both of whom left the field to loud cheers from the travelling Hornets, with Anya and Abdi.  In between the substitutions, Özil had been booked for a late challenge on Behrami.

Deeney gets into position

Deeney gets into position

As the game entered the last 10 minutes, Gibbs had a chance to reduce the deficit, but his back header was straight at Pantilimon.  Flores made his final substitution replacing Ighalo with Amrabat as the home fans left the ground in droves.  Arsenal had a decent chance as Sánchez cut the ball back to Chambers but he shot well wide.  At this point, Lynn commented that it looked like it was our day.  My look of horror was greeted with, “I hope I haven’t jinxed it.”  So did I.  My heart was pounding at this point and I couldn’t bring myself to join in the chants of “Que sera, sera”.  Watford then threatened again as Anya released Amrabat who broke forward before cutting the ball back to Deeney whose shot was blocked.  Deeney then turned provider playing a through ball to Anya who tried a shot from a narrow angle, which was stopped by Ospina, when a pull back to Amrabat may have been a better decision.  The count down to the 90th minute was stopped short at 88 when Welbeck pulled a goal back with a close range shot past Pantilimon and the nervous tension in the away end went up a (large) notch.  It was a relief that the next attack came from the Hornets, but Amrabat’s shot from distance was well wide of the near post.  There was almost collective heart failure among the travelling fans as a shot from Iwobi rebounded off the inside of the post and hit Pantilimon before Welbeck turned the loose ball wide when he really should have buried it.

The celebration run towards the crowd

The celebration run towards the crowd

The fourth official indicated an additional four minutes, which was the minimum we could have expected.  Welbeck had another chance to equalize as he latched on to a long pass, but Prödl and Pantilimon combined to ensure that his shot was off target.  There was one final chance for Arsenal as a shot from Iwobi was deflected for a corner which came to nothing.  I didn’t hear the final whistle over the thumping of my heart, but I did see the referee catch the ball and the Watford bench belting on to the pitch and over to celebrate with the Watford fans.  Ighalo’s beaming smile was back, I don’t think I have ever seen him so happy, and Capoue was dancing joyously while I was trying to choke back happy tears.

The celebrations in the ground continued as the players finished the handshakes with the opposition and the officials and the hugs among themselves and the players lined up to do one of those German-style rush to the crowd celebrations, which clearly hadn’t been practiced so was endearingly rubbish which, strangely, added to the joy.  The advertising continued on the big screen in the ground and I couldn’t help but laugh when it flashed up “Next match: Arsenal vs Watford.”  They even played “Yellow” over the tannoy.  But I must give a special mention to the Arsenal fans who hadn’t left with 10 minutes to go as there was still a decent number who stayed to applaud the Watford players.

The Cally

The Cally

As we left the ground there was a large group singing and celebrating outside, which was all rather lovely.  We decided to walk back to King’s Cross (it was only a couple of miles and I am down to do 27 in a couple of weeks).  It seemed oddly fitting to pass a pub called “The Cally” and we were congratulated by numerous people on the way, all of whom I assumed were Spurs fans.  We arrived back to the pub to see a lot of familiar faces and a number of strangers in yellow, red and black who elicited big smiles.  Everyone there, in their own way, was trying to come to terms with what had just happened.  Because, the apparently one sided stats notwithstanding, we came away feeling that we had thoroughly deserved that victory as we had created (and finished) the best of the chances and had shown incredible strength of character in holding out after Arsenal scored.  I have seen too many Watford teams that would have collapsed at that point.

A day later, I have been congratulated by so many neutrals (as well as the odd lovely Arsenal fan) and have to keep pinching myself.  When I started following a small town club in the late 70s, I could never have known how much joy they would bring me.  We have had so many ups and downs over the years, they have made me ecstatic and broken my heart.  But, in March 2016, I find myself supporting a little club that appears to be about to have a second season in the Premier League and I am planning to attend my fifth FA Cup semi-final.  Plus we are doing this while still feeling that our owners respect the history of our small town club.  And that is just remarkable.