It was a cold, wet evening in November so what better way to spend it than watching the Under-21s in the Premier League Cup. Entry to the ground was through the Hornet Shop and there was more than a touch of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the passage through a small door into a magical kingdom, although Narnia has nothing on Vicarage Road under the lights. I had arranged to meet Don in the Lower GT disabled area and, as I descended the steps, I was delighted to see a huge poster with a quote from the great man. Don then sent me back to see what I had missed. On the steps up from the Rookery and those to the Upper GT, the great man’s achievements were commemorated. A lovely touch, which brought a nostalgic tear to my eye. But we were there to see the next generation (and Almen Abdi).
As with the trip to Bristol City our team looked strong, it was certainly good to see Abdi on a team sheet again. The starting line-up was Ammann, Rowan, Hoban, Young, Doherty, Abdi, Murray, Byers, Smith, Jakubiak and Ikpeazu.
The game started in the worst possible way for the home side as, in the fourth minute, a corner was headed goalwards by Davies, Ammann could only parry the ball and Norris turned it in at the near post. Jakubiak tried to strike back but his shot was blocked for a corner. Watford had the ball in the net in the 11th minute as a shot from Ikpeazu bounced up off the Gillingham keeper, Morris, and Hoban headed it into the empty net, but the linesman had his flag raised, so it didn’t count. Norris threatened again with a header but Ammann got a hand to it. Byers went on a run and fed Smith but the Irishman’s shot was straight at the keeper. At the other end, Linganzi took a shot that flew over the bar. Watford had a great chance to equalize as Jakubiak went on a run and played a through ball to Ikpeazu whose shot was blocked by the keeper’s legs. At the other end a shot from Norris was blocked by Smith. Watford should have equalized on 35 minutes as a corner from Abdi was met with a header from Ikpeazu in front of goal. It looked easier to score but the header flew over the bar. The home side continued to threaten as a lovely through ball from Jakubiak reached Ikpeazu but his shot was gathered by Morris. Byers then received the ball in the box but his shot was deflected for a corner. In time added on, a wonderful ball over the top from Abdi released Smith who found space for a shot, but Morris was on hand to block.
At the start of the second half, Folivi replaced Ikpeazu who didn’t look fully fit. Folivi has been banging the goals in for the youth team, so I was looking forward to seeing him play. Jakubiak broke into the box but seemed to be indecisive about whether to shoot or cross and ended up hitting a wayward pass that went out for a throw. The Hornets went two down three minutes into the half as Blanchard hit a stunning volley that gave Ammann no chance. It was a real blow to go two goals down and the chances of the young Hornets getting back into the game looked slim, which made what followed all the more enjoyable. Ten minutes into the half Folivi released Jakubiak who hit a shot on the run that was smothered by Morris. The next move involving the two front men resulted in the Hornets pulling a goal back. Folivi closed down a clearance, the ball flew into the box where Jakubiak was on hand to shoot past Morris in the Gillingham goal. On the hour, Abdi made way for Stewart. It was great to see Almen back in action. But back to the youngsters and Watford were level soon after as Murray played a ball out to Folivi on the right wing, he played a low cross into the box where Jakubiak took a touch to control the ball then blasted it into the net. Delighted as I was with the equalizer, I was begging for a third goal at this point as it was freezing and the thought of extra time and penalties was not appealing. Gillingham tried to hit back with a cross-cum-shot from Freiter but Ammann parried it to safety.
It was the substitute, Folivi, who completed the Watford come back receiving a pass from Byers and hitting a shot from distance into the top corner. It was a thrilling goal. Folivi had a chance to grab another as he latched on to a pass from Byers into the box, but a defender was in close attendance and he tumbled. The referee indicated a free kick for the visitors and appeared to be about to book Folivi for a dive (which it wasn’t), but instead showed the card to Romeo who had clattered Folivi earlier in the move. Sellens was the next to threaten the Watford goal but his shot was wide of the target, At this point we were visited in the disabled enclosure by a lovely man from the catering department who gave us each a portion of chips. Crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, just what the doctor ordered on a cold night. Back to the action on the pitch, a shot from Freiter was deflected wide. From the corner Staunton headed over the target. At the other end Murray tried a shot from distance that was saved by the Gillingham keeper. The visitors launched a counter attack but Ammann was down to save the shot from Pritchard. With 8 minutes remaining, Murray made way for Lewis. Byers had a chance to increase the lead but shot well wide of the target. At this point, there was suddenly a burst of song from the Upper GT. Most uncharacteristic. In the dying minutes of the game, Freiter broke forward but Hoban was on hand to clear. Connor Smith was booked for a rather reckless tackle on Blanchard and the final action was a Gillingham corner that was headed over the bar by Staunton. So the young Hornets reached the final 16 after a lively second half performance achieved a result that had looked highly unlikely early in the half.
So a very impressive come from behind win by the under 21s. Despite the appearance of players with first team experience, it was the kids that caught the eye. Charlie Rowan put in a good shift in the centre of defence. George Byers worked hard creating a lot of chances. Alex jakubiak never stopped working and was a constant threat on the Gillingham goal. Michael Folivi was super sub scoring one and providing assists for the other two goals. So, on a cold wet night, I left Vicarage Road with a huge smile on my face having been royally entertained.