Tag Archives: Ander Herrera

Defeat Despite Domination at Old Trafford

Deeney and Smalling challenge for the ball

I took an early train to Manchester on which I was delighted to meet up with Dave Messenger, Watford’s Supporter Liaison Officer, who then accompanied me to our designated pre-match pub (which had also been his intended meeting point).  On arrival at the pub, I realised that the small bag containing my purse that I had when I left London was no longer on my person.  Having had no joy from the customer service hotline, which gave me the number for a closed lost property office, I headed back to Piccadilly.  I explained my problem to a lovely guy called Sean in the ticket office, who identified the train manager (Anthony) on the train which had just left to return to London.  He gave him a call and Anthony went to my seat, found the bag and, as he wouldn’t be back in Manchester until late, promised to leave it at Lost Property in London for me to pick up on my return.

Mightily relieved, I headed back to the pub just in time to see the team, who were at the hotel opposite, starting to board the coach for the journey to Old Trafford.  I entered the pub to find all the usual suspects in place, which was very convenient as I had semi-final tickets to hand out (thankfully these were in the bag that I had retained).  I have to say that it was a relief to pass them on, so that the responsibility was no longer mine.

Ben Foster takes a free kick

We gave ourselves plenty of time to get to the ground and negotiate the multiple layers of security that they have at Old Trafford.  As they now only allow you to take a very small bag into the stadium, I filled my pockets with the stuff I needed for the game (match ticket, glasses, phone, camera, notebook) and left the rest at the bag drop where they charged me £5 for the privilege.  I know that they want to encourage people not to take bags to the game, but nobody is going to travel for a couple of hours without provisions for the journey and I find it impossible to travel light anyway.  On arrival at the turnstiles, there was another search before we finally entered.  Once inside the ground, I could hear the tannoy announcer welcoming us to the “Theatre of Dreams”.  My description was much less polite.  Old Trafford really is the most unpleasant ground to visit in the Premier League.

Prior to the match, there had been speculation that Gracia would rest players in preparation for the semi-final next week.  There was another train of thought that said that the players had been training for two weeks, so needed game time.  As it turned out, there were five changes from the Palace game with wholesale changes in defence as Foster, Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos and Masina replaced Gomes, Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart and Holebas.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos, Masina; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney.  United’s starting line-up featured Watford Academy graduate Ashley Young who, following some over-exuberant goal celebrations in front of Watford fans, is no longer greeted as an erstwhile hero.  The referee for the afternoon was Stuart Attwell.  A choice that was rather ironic as discussions with John Eustace regarding the “ghost goal” had been a notable feature at the Tales from the Vicarage event the previous Sunday.

Doucoure on the ball

The game started brightly for the Hornets with a decent chance in the sixth minute as Pereyra cut the ball back to Doucouré whose shot was just wide of the near post.  Deeney had the next chance with a shot from distance that was high and wide of the target.  The first attack of note by the home side came on the counter as Pogba released Rashford who was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Kabasele.  The resulting corner was delivered deep to Smalling who headed wide.  Watford had a great chance to open the scoring as a cross from Janmaat was headed goalwards by Deeney, de Gea managed to make the save but injured himself in the process.  At this point the first chant of “Attwell, give us a goal” was heard.  The first booking of the game went to Will Hughes for a foul on Pogba.  Watford had another great chance and Pereyra really should have done better when he received a headed pass from Deulofeu, but his shot was soft and straight at the keeper.  Deulofeu was the next to test de Gea with a shot through legs but, again, it was a fairly simple save for the keeper.  On a rare foray into the Watford box, Martial took a tumble looking for a penalty, but the referee was having none of it and waved play on.  United took the lead against the run of play as Shaw released Rashford, Foster came out to try to stop the shot, but the United youngster found the net.  At this point, if there had been any leg room and I hadn’t been in the second to back row of a stand in which everyone was on their feet, I would have slumped into my seat.  It was so frustrating to be a goal down following United’s first real chance of the game.  Ironically, the home side had a great chance to increase their lead almost immediately as a corner was cleared only as far as Martial but his shot was stopped by a brilliant reaction save by Foster.  The last chance of the half fell to the Hornets as Deulofeu took a dangerous-looking free kick, but Smalling was able to get a head to it and avert the danger.

Deulofeu prepares for a corner

So we reached half time a goal down in a half that had been completely dominated by the Hornets.  We were trailing to a goal scored by the home side on a counter attack.  But, if you don’t take your chances ….

The home side came out for the second half some time before the visitors, but it was the Hornets who had the first shot of the half, a curler from Deulofeu that was saved fairly comfortably by de Gea.  Janmaat was the next to try his luck, but his shot from the edge of the box was over the target.  Watford had a great chance to grab an equaliser when Deulofeu cut the ball back to Pereyra whose shot needed an excellent save from de Gea to push it around the post.  Gracia made his first change after 57 minutes replacing Janmaat with Femenía.  Watford had another decent chance as Hughes hit a lovely curling shot, but it was just wide of the target.  The Hornets threatened again as a corner cleared to Femenía who was well outside the box when he took the shot, but de Gea managed to get in the way to make the block.  There was a double substitution for the home side as Herrera and Mata made way for Lingard and Pereira.

Pereyra and Hughes

Watford were playing some gorgeous football and deserved more from a lovely passing move that finished with a chip from Deeney that de Gea saved.  Watford won a free kick, which was cleared to Capoue whose volley was way over the target.  Watford had been dominant again in the second half, so it was cruel that the first meaningful attack of the second half from the home side resulted in their second goal as Lingard crossed for Martial, his first shot was blocked by Foster but he bundled the rebound in.  To add insult to injury, we were in front of an executive box so were able to watch a reply which clearly showed Martial in an offside position.  Each side made a further substitution with Gray replacing Deulofeu for the Hornets and Rojo on for Martial for the home side.  United had a chance to further increase their lead but Lingard’s shot was straight at Foster.  Pereyra then had a great chance to pull one back when he received a cross in an acre of space, but he waited too long to take the shot so was closed down and could only win a corner.  Gracia made his last substitution bringing Success on for Hughes, who had had a superb game.  There was a second booking for the Hornets as Masina was cautioned for bundling Rashford over as he attempted a break.  As the clock reached 90 minutes, Watford pulled a goal back as Doucouré played a one-two with Success before coolly finishing past de Gea.  The travelling Hornets celebrated mightily, the players just ran back to the centre circle to get on with the game.  Oddly, given the goal, substitutions and various stoppages for injuries/cramp, there was only 3 minutes of time added on.  Watford had a great chance to grab an equaliser when Capoue won a free kick just outside the box.  Pereyra took the free kick and I was just waiting for a shot when a United player collapsed in the box and the whistle went to award a free kick to the home side.  That was the last action of the game, so the Hornets ended up on the losing side.

Capoue takes a free kick

Despite their disappointment at the defeat, the travelling Hornets roared their appreciation of the team’s performance with the songs reaching a crescendo as Gracia came over to applaud the crowd.  It had been a tremendous performance by the Watford lads.  It isn’t often that you play away against one of the top six and find the home team playing a defensive game hoping to score on the break.  The Watford midfield ran the game and, in a season in which Capoue and Doucouré have excelled on a weekly basis, it was great to see Hughes put in a superb performance.

On the tram back to the station, we got talking to some locals who acknowledged that we had been the better team.  Unsurprisingly, the train back to London was packed, but I arrived early enough to bump into some fellow regulars, so I had delightful company on the journey home.  We were joined by a Norwegian Manchester United fan, who was lovely and chatted away about his team.  He had taken his significant other to her first game and said that she’d enjoyed it.  My suggestion that, given the performances of the two teams, she would likely opt for Watford fell on deaf ears.

Gathering for a corner

On return to Euston I went in search of my mislaid purse.  The guy at Lost Property claimed no knowledge of the item, so I went to the ticket office where I met Petro and Sana, who went above and beyond the call of duty, finding the name and contact details for the train manager who had promised to drop off my bag.  They called him and were told that it was in lost property so Petro accompanied me to convey what he had been told to the guardian of the missing loot, who produced a book containing details of all items that had been left with them and I spotted the entry that corresponded to my purse.  He retrieved it and I was able to return home with my purse intact and a great respect for the customer service delivered by the Virgin Trains ticket office staff.

Back to the football and this had been a wonderful performance by the Watford boys.  We now face a week with a game against Fulham that could allow us to achieve our highest points total in the Premier League since it was created and a game on Sunday in which we could advance to only our second FA Cup final.  If we play as we did on Saturday, I believe we should be able to achieve both of those aims.  I just need to work out how to keep myself functioning in the day job for the next week.

 

 

Handbags and Glad Rags at the End of the Season

Don and I with the Player of the Season

On Thursday, Watford held the End of Season dinner.  I must say that I don’t enjoy Wembley as a venue, it feels as though you are having dinner in an aircraft hangar and the event has lost its friendly feel.  On the plus side, for the first time in three years the head coach was in attendance.  I managed to have a brief chat with Javi, who said what a lovely family we were at Watford.  On the family theme, it was really lovely to see Rita Taylor there with her daughter and grandchildren.  The youngsters were on the stage to help present the Player of the Season award which is named in honour of GT.  There was no surprise when Doucouré won the award and I can confirm that he is a lovely chap.  As, indeed, is Christian Kabasele, who was the Community Ambassador of the year.  The Hall of Fame inductee was Tom Walley, not before time.  He was joined on the evening by a number of his ‘graduates’.  Robert Page and Kenny Jackett both paid warm tribute to him and his part in making them into the players/managers/men that they are.  Tom’s acceptance speech was brief but heartfelt.

The winning team

On Saturday was the Legends game in aid of the 25th anniversary of the Community Sports and Education Trust.  It was a foul day with the rain lashing down but, as I entered the ground, I was cheered to see Tom Walley waiting for the lift to the concourse.  I went up to him to say how happy I was that he had received the Hall of Fame accolade.  I was rewarded with a smile, a kiss and “Football has been good to me.”  I pointed out that he had been very good to football.  The game ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.  But it was lovely to see Lloyd Doyley, Nicky Wright, Allan Smart, Steve Palmer, Gavin Mahon, Marcus Gayle and Derek Payne gracing the Vicarage Road pitch again.  The teams were managed by Luther Blissett and Kenny Jackett.  Luther played a cameo at the end and ended up as the manager of the winning team.

After the Legends game, I headed up to Manchester for Sunday’s match.  When I arrived at the pre-match pub there was already a couple of Northern based Hornets at ‘our’ table.  The team usually travel to the ground from the hotel opposite the pub, so we waved them off from the comfort of our seats.  Not that they saw us, but it is the thought that counts.  Our pre-match group was honoured to be joined by Emma Saunders, Watford’s matchday announcer, who was being a fan for the day.

Cuddling lovely Christian Kabasele

We left the pub in plenty of time to deal with the extensive security measures that are always in place at Old Trafford.  Being aware of the restrictions, I had left my rucksack and laptop in the hotel and arrived at the ground with only my essentials.  We passed through the first cordon and had our bags checked with no issues.  Then we arrived at the next phalanx of stewards to be told that no bags were allowed in the ground “because of what happened in Paris last night.”  So, a madman with a knife on the streets of Paris meant that middle-aged women could no longer be trusted to bring handbags into a football stadium.  Mick Smithers, our Police liaison officer, was in the vicinity, so we asked whether he would mind our bags, but we were given no choice but to walk to a car park across the road to dispose of the offending items.  The bag drop that had been designated for away fans was already full.  We asked what we were supposed to do now and were directed to another portacabin that was barely visible in the distance.  On arrival, I emptied my bag of most of its contents and transferred them to my pockets and basically left my make-up bag behind.  When we arrived back at the turnstiles, there was a quick check with a wand and we were in.  It would have been a lot simpler and more secure to have examined the contents of my small bag as they had no idea what was in my rather large pockets.

Pereyra on the ball

Due to our diversion, I arrived at my seat just as the pre-match handshakes were taking place.  I then did my usual thing of getting my notebook, pen and camera ready for the game.  As I retrieved things from my coat pocket, I realised that I had completely forgotten to transfer a pen from my bag and nobody else in our party had one, so I was unable to make any notes on the game, which is probably as well as it was not a game packed with incident.

Team news was that Gracia had made three changes from the Newcastle game with Gomes, Deulofeu and Richarlison coming in for Karnezis, Capoue and Deeney.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Pereyra, Richarlison; Gray.  The return of Gomes to the team meant that he would make his 100th Premier League appearance for the Hornets and would be wearing the captain’s armband as he did so.  There was also much joy among the travelling fans when it was confirmed that Chalobah would be on the bench after so long out due to injury.

Heurelho Gomes making his 100th Premier League appearance for the Hornets

The first chance of the game fell to the Hornets as Romero dropped a cross from Janmaat which, for a moment, looked as though it may drift in to the goal, but there was no Watford player on hand to take advantage and the United goalie was able to recover.  The first caution was earned by Rojo for a foul on Richarlison.  The young Brazilian took the resultant free kick himself but sent it well over the bar.  The home side had their first chance of note in the 16th minute when Sanchez received a pass from Blind, but volleyed well wide of the target.  Gracia was forced into an early substitution when Kabasele ushered a ball out of play and, as he followed it, the momentum took him down the slope behind the goal and he collided with the hoardings.  Christian tried to continue after receiving treatment, but soon had to be replaced by Mariappa.  I was just hoping that this didn’t end his chance of being involved in the World Cup.  United took the lead in the 34th minute with a goal that came out of nothing as Carrick played a ball over the top to Mata, who appeared to be in an offside position, he squared for Rashford who had a simple finish past Gomes.  The Hornets should have grabbed an equaliser just before half time as Richarlison met a cross from Janmaat and headed back across goal, but Romero pulled off a terrific save to frustrate the Watford youngster.  The resulting corner reached Deulofeu who tried a shot, but Romero was also equal to that effort.  So we reached half time with the Hornets slightly unfortunate to be a goal down.

Deeney and Pereyra challenging in the United box

The first incident of note in the second half was a caution for Ashley Young after a foul on Janmaat.  Sadly, following his unpleasant celebration after scoring against the Hornets at Vicarage Road, the former Watford youngster was being booed every time he touched the ball.  Pereyra took the free-kick, which bounced off Mariappa and the home defence were able to clear.  Soon after, Young was replaced by Luke Shaw.  Gracia also made a change bringing Deeney on for Deulofeu and switching to two up front.  United had a chance to increase their lead as Sanchez crossed to the back post, but the ball was too high for Mata. There was another card for the home side as McTominay was penalised for a shirt pull on Richarlison.  There appeared to be a terrific chance for the Hornets as a poor clearance bounced off Hughes who found Gray, who had a great chance to finish but took one touch too many and ended up putting the ball wide.  His blushes were spared as the flag was up for offside, but it was a terrible miss.  There were loud cheers from the travelling Hornets as Chalobah appeared on the touchline ready to take the field, which he did in place of Gray.  United then made their second substitution bringing Herrera on for Blind.  With 10 minutes remaining, Watford had a terrific chance to score an equaliser as Richarlison ran into the box but, again, waited too long to take a shot and was tackled.  The last half chance for the visitors came as a deep corner from Holebas was met by a header by Doucouré, but it was weak and easily gathered by Romero.  With five minutes remaining, Michael Carrick, who was making his last appearance before retiring, was substituted (for Paul Pogba) to allow him to enjoy an ovation from the United fans.  The Watford faithful joined in with the applause.  And that was it, there were no further goals and the game finished with a narrow win for United.

So happy to see Chalobah back on the pitch

At the final whistle, the Watford players applauded the crowd and Adrian Mariappa came over to give his shirt to one of the fans in the disabled area.  The stewards on the pitch stepped in to stop him and it took all of his charm to persuade them that this action was not a security issue.  The joy on the face of the woman who received the shirt as she held it aloft in triumph made the stewards’ action look as mean spirited as it was.  It was also noticeable how few home fans were left in the ground to applaud their team’s efforts this season.  I guess that finishing second in the league getting to the Cup Final isn’t worthy of celebration in this part of Manchester, nor is saying goodbye to a long serving player.  So very sad, but Old Trafford seems primarily to be a tourist destination these days.

As we headed back to pick up our bags, I encountered Don Fraser, so pushed his wheelchair back to Coach 1.  We proceeded in the direction of the bag drop only to find that there was a barrier in the way and a steward directing us back the way we had come.  Our expressions of indignation persuaded him to let us through and, thankfully, we were soon on our way.

Gathering in the box for a corner

So it was back to the pub for the last post-match analysis of the season.  It has to be said that it wasn’t a great game.  The home side appeared to be playing in second gear while they looked forward to the Cup Final next week.  Watford, as so often this season, put in a decent performance but, as a friend commented, were “pathologically opposed to shooting.”  United did defend well, but if an early shot had been taken on a couple of occasions, Romero may have had a more difficult afternoon.  It has been a very odd season.  It started with some superb performances, but started petering out once Silva received the approach from Everton and, despite moments of brilliance, never regained any momentum.  While 14th in the division is something that most of us would have been happy with at the start of the season, it does feel like the team has massively underachieved given the talent in the squad.  Certainly the absence of Cleverley and Chalobah through injury for much of the season has had an effect on performances, but the main problem has been the lack of an effective striker and they are not easy to come by.

But, frustrating as this season has been, I will be counting the days until the fixtures come out so that I can plan next year’s adventures.

Thank you to all of you who have read my reports this season.  I wish you all a wonderful Summer.

 

Watford Missing the X-factor

Spot the ball

Midweek games are something of a rarity these days, so it seemed odd to be slipping out of work to head for Vicarage Road.  As I approached the West Herts, I bumped into Don and Trond, who were already on their way to the ground.  I know that they usually leave pretty early, but there were a number of other people also heading in the opposite direction to me, so I became a little concerned that I had made a mistake regarding the kick-off time.  Thankfully the bar was still busy and our usual table was populated with friendly faces.  There was a surprise appearance by Chris and Carl Todd.  So lovely to see them and even better that there was a spare ticket available among our group allowing Chris to see the game live rather than watching the television in the bar.

Team news was that Silva had made one change from the team that started at Newcastle, with Prödl replacing the injured Britos in defence.  So, the starting line-up was Gomes; Mariappa, Prödl, Kabasele; Femenía, Cleverley, Doucouré, Zeegelaar; Hughes, Richarlison; Gray.  Former Watford youngster, Ashley Young, started for the visitors and his name was cheered as it was announced.

Cleverley lines up a free kick

It all started so well.  The Hornets had an early chance as Femenía hit a cross that Richarlison was just unable to reach.  The Brazilian was the next to try a cross, but it was caught by De Gea.  A corner from Cleverley was met by the head of Zeegelaar, but the effort was blocked.  Somewhat against the run of play, the visitors took the lead in the 19th minute with a gorgeous shot from Young that curled in at the near post.  He celebrated in front of the Watford fans, which incurred the wrath of many in the Rookery meaning that his every touch was booed from that moment on.  The first booking of the evening went to Doucouré after a tackle on Pogba.  Young scored a second after 25 minutes with a stunning free kick which flew over the wall and under the crossbar before Gomes saw it.  This time he celebrated by sliding on his knees towards the Rookery.  Now I am not one of those who believes that returning players should not celebrate, but I thought this celebration was a bit rude.  There is no need to goad the opposition fans and it would have been more enjoyable for both sets of fans if he had celebrated facing the away end.  The visitors scored their third after both Kabasele and Prödl failed to clear when given the opportunity, allowing Lukaku to feed Martial who had an easy finish.  Gomes saved Watford’s blushes, preventing a fourth goal, as he parried Lukaku’s shot from the edge of the area, Lingard looked sure to score from the follow-up and Gomes did well to tip the shot over the bar.  In time added on at the end of the half, there was finally something to make the Watford fans smile as Femenía went on a run across the pitch and into the box where he crossed for Richarlison whose header hit the bar and flew over the target.

Rak-Su entertaining the crowd

The half-time entertainment was a visit by X-factor finalists, Rak-Su, a band of Watford lads.  It probably wasn’t the best evening for them to be appearing as the Watford crowd were not in the best of moods by this point.  They did their best to lift spirits, but were fighting a losing battle.

I was not looking forward to the teams returning after the break, but the Hornets started brightly as Cleverley tried a cross which was too close to De Gea.  At the other end, Martial found Lukaku who shot wide of the far post.  Each side was forced to make a substitution early in the half with Herrera coming on for the injured Matic for the visitors, while Pereyra and Carrillo replaced Prödl and Hughes, who appeared to have a strain, for the home side.  Watford threatened with a shot from distance from Doucouré that flew over the bar.  The Hornets came even closer to pulling one back when a lovely cross from Femenía was met by Richarlison whose header was just wide of the near post.  United’s second change saw Rashford come on for Martial.  The visitors had a chance to increase their lead as Pogba met a corner from Lingard, but Gomes dropped to make the save.  Carrillo did really well to turn and lose his marker on the edge of the box, he put in a decent cross, but no Watford player could apply the finishing touch.  Then a Zeegelaar cross flew over the head of Richarlison, the clearance fell to Mariappa who tried a shot from distance that flew wide of the near post.

Deeney heading back to the centre circle after scoring the penalty

Silva’s final change was to bring Deeney on for Gray.  The captain took the field to a massive roar from the Vicarage Road faithful.  He had an early chance to make an impression as a cross from Doucouré came his way, but the defender stopped him making a clean connection.  The visitors had a further chance to increase their lead as a free-kick from Lingard was met by Pogba, but his header was just over the bar.  A couple of chances then fell to Lukaku, the first was blocked by Mariappa, the second flew wide of the far post.  Watford got a goal back on 77 minutes after Rojo tripped Pereyra in the box.  The United players surrounded the referee, but he had already pointed to the spot.  Deeney stepped up with a smile on his face.  The guy next to me couldn’t look, so missed seeing Troy kiss the ball before placing it on the spot and burying it in the left-hand corner after sending De Gea the wrong way.  At last, something to cheer for the fans of the Hornets.  The Watford captain had a chance to score a second as Femenía delivered a lovely cross that Troy headed goalwards, but it was caught by De Gea.  The second Watford goal was a thing of beauty as Carrillo crossed for Doucouré to hit a terrific shot past De Gea.  Suddenly it was game on and the Watford crowd were roaring their encouragement.  Richarlison had a chance for an equalizer, but his close range shot was blocked at the near post.  Then United broke down field and Lingard dribbled half the length of the pitch.  With the Watford defence arrayed in front of him, I was willing one of them to stop him, but no tackle came and he beat Gomes to give the visitors a two goal cushion.  Despite the set-back, Watford were still battling to get something from the game as Richarlison crossed from the byline but De Gea put the ball out for a corner, from which Cleverley’s delivery was headed clear by Pogba.  There was a roar from the home crowd as the fourth official indicated that there were 4 additional minutes, but it was in vain and the game finished in defeat, but with the Watford team applauded off the pitch.

Doucoure after scoring the second

It was an odd game.  The first half had been brutal.  Watford had not been overrun as far as possession was concerned, but each misplaced pass seemed to be punished.  It has to be said that Young’s goals were both excellent, but I was pretty miserable at the end of the half.  But the Watford team showed great resilience with a considerably better performance in the second half.  The introduction of Carrillo made a difference, he was excellent.  Deeney also contributed to the upturn, his strength is always an asset and he certainly added a new dimension to the game.  When Doucouré’s goal went in, there was a definite feeling that we could get something from the game, something that would have seemed impossible at half time.

The defeat was disappointing but, before the game, we had this one down as a free hit and I enjoyed the comment of one of the lads behind me that, having already won 4 points from games against Liverpool and Arsenal, that would do for him.  We host Tottenham on Saturday, which won’t be any easier, but can also be considered a free hit before we have a series of games against those around us in the table.  Our points total in December will give a very good signal of whether this team is as good as we think it is.  With 21 points already on the board, a relegation battle is looking unlikely, so I hope that we can continue to look up the table and enjoy the football.  That would make me very happy indeed.

No Shame in Defeat at Old Trafford

Commemorating the Munich disaster

Commemorating the Munich disaster

After back-to-back wins in the previous two matches, we travelled to Manchester with considerably more confidence about the game than had been the case when we bought the tickets on the day after the defeat to Millwall.  There were happy memories of the win at Vicarage Road earlier in the season, but the current United team are on a great run of form and a completely different proposition.  We have only ever won once at Old Trafford, that wonderful League Cup tie in 1978, a game that evokes happy memories even for somebody who only listened to the commentary on the radio.  I had no expectation of a second victory on this occasion.

I enjoyed delightful company on the train journey as, on the day after her 18th birthday, my niece was making her first visit to Old Trafford.  The journey got even better as we bumped into a friend, so she had an extra excuse for a lack of progress on her homework.

On arrival in Manchester, we met up with the North West ‘Orns at their pub of choice where my niece was dissuaded from her request for lemonade so enjoyed her first pre-match pint.  The pub has the added interest of being next door to the team hotel.  The Watford team coach was parked outside as we arrived and we were able to wave the players off through the windows.

Capoue challenging Pogba

Capoue challenging Pogba

Previous experience of the security at Old Trafford meant that we left the pub a considerable time before kick-off.  There is a veritable army on duty outside the away turnstiles.  The first phalanx has a cursory look in bags, the second checks tickets and the third does the thorough search of both bags and people, so you need quite some time to get into the ground.  Once inside you make your way to seats that have the least leg room of any stadium in the country.  I am only 5’6” and I struggle.  This is one stadium at which it is more comfortable to stand for the duration of the game.

Team news was that Mazzarri had made just the one change with Britos coming in for Behrami.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Cleverley, Capoue; Niang, Zárate, Holebas; Deeney.

Prior to kick-off they commemorated the 59th anniversary of the Munich disaster.  Families of the victims had been invited as guests of the club at the game.  They played “Flowers of Manchester” and the players gathered around the centre circle as if to honour a minute’s silence/applause, but there seemed to be a last minute change of plan and they went back to their pre-match huddle.

Deeney calling for the ball

Deeney calling for the ball

The home side had a very early chance when a cross flicked off a Watford head and fell to Ibrahimovic, whose shot was dreadful and way off target.  Ibrahimovic then played a lovely through ball for Mata, but Gomes came out to make the tackle.  Watford’s first chance came on 9 minutes as Niang tried a shot from the edge of the area but it was straight at de Gea in the United goal.  Mkhitaryan was the next to try his luck with a shot from distance that was easy for Gomes to gather.  At the other end, Zárate fed Niang whose shot flew well over the bar.  Martial cut inside and tried a shot from outside the area that deflected off Prödl and went wide.  Watford had a terrific chance to open the scoring as Holebas went on a run down the left before unleashing a shot that curled just wide of the far post.  At the other end, Pogba unleashed a shot from distance that Gomes pushed wide.  From a throw, Zárate tried a spectacular overhead kick, but it was an easy save for de Gea.  The first 20 minutes had been fairly even, but then the home side gained the upper hand and it was one way traffic.  It started with Ibrahimovic, who looked a mile offside when he received the ball, there was no flag but, thankfully, he shot well over.  Then a careless clearance from Prödl went straight to Valencia who battled past Niang before crossing for Pogba whose shot was saved.

Prodl lines up a free kick

Prodl lines up a free kick

There were two further chances just before the half hour.  First a cut back from Blind to Herrera who launched a powerful shot over the bar.  Then Mata played the ball back to Mkhitaryan who should have done better with his shot which again flew over.  The onslaught on the Watford goal continued as Mata crossed from the byline to Ibrahimovic whose close range header was brilliantly stopped by Gomes, the follow-up shot was blocked by Holebas.  The breakthrough finally came on 31 minutes as Martial crossed for Mata who finished from close range.  It had been coming and I feared that this would open the floodgates but, apart from a shot from Mkhitaryan just before half time that was easy enough for Gomes, that was the end of the goal chances in the first half.

We felt very fortunate to go in at half time only one goal behind, due to a mixture of superb goalkeeping from Gomes and poor finishing from the United players, with Ibrahimovic a particular culprit.  What had been particularly annoying from the Hornets was the profligacy with the ball.  All the great passing from the Arsenal game had completely disappeared as, too often, they struggled to find a yellow shirt.

Kaboul, Cleverley, Zarate and Janmaat line up for a free kick

Kaboul, Cleverley, Zarate and Janmaat line up for a free kick

At half time, I discovered another interesting quirk of the United security as, despite having spent 45 minutes in the ground, anyone who made their way to the concourse found that they would not be allowed back to their seats unless they produced their ticket.  As someone who frequently leaves their coat or bag on the seats, it was a relief that, for once, I had put the ticket in a pocket.  What an utterly ridiculous rule.

The home side had the first chance of the second half as Martial went on a run and shot across goal and just wide.  Watford had a decent chance for an equalizer as Zárate hit a free kick over the wall that needed a decent save from de Gea to tip it clear.  Man Utd’s second goal came on the hour.  Capoue was guilty of holding on to the ball for too long, was tackled and the home side launched a quick break that finished with Martial shooting past Gomes.  Watford had a chance to strike back as Deeney received a long ball from Prödl and fought off the attentions of Bailly before shooting wide of the near post.  At the other end Mkhitaryan found Ibrahimovic whose shot was deflected wide.  Watford had another half chance as Niang kept the ball under challenge in the box but, with Deeney in space, chose to shoot across the goal and the chance went begging.  The Frenchman threatened again, going on a great run before crossing for Janmaat, who should have done better, but skyed his shot.

Zarate, Deeney and Cleverley

Zarate, Deeney and Cleverley

The home side made the first change of the afternoon with Mata making way for Fellaini.  Deeney had a decent chance to reduce the deficit as he received a long ball in the box, he was challenged as he went to shoot and de Gea was able to parry his shot.  Mazzarri’s first change was to bring Okaka on for Zárate.  The Italian made an immediate impression advancing down the left before cutting the ball back, his pass was blocked just before it reached Deeney.  He was in action again soon after, playing the ball to Janmaat whose shot was just wide of the near post.  The home side launched a rare second half attack but Gomes dropped to block a shot from Mkhitaryan.  There was an interesting sight soon after as a large phalanx of stewards lined up in front of one of the home stands, apparently to prevent a pitch invasion that they clearly felt would be prompted by Rashford taking the field in place of Martial!  Ibrahimovic finished the afternoon as he had started it, receiving the ball in the box and, with the goal at his mercy, flicking his shot away from the target.  Each side made a late substitution with Cathcart replacing Success for the visitors and Mkhitaryan making way for Lingard for the hosts.  As is usual, with 5 minutes to go, the Old Trafford tourists were streaming out of the ground.  It seems so wrong not to stay and applaud a win, but I am old fashioned like that.  As it happened, they didn’t miss anything and the game ended with a win for the home side.

The second half had been much more pleasing from the Hornets who had given a good account of themselves and had created some decent chances.  This game was always going to be a free hit and results below us meant that we finished the day feeling fairly confident of our place in the division.

As we walked back to the metro station, I told my niece the terrible story of Munich.  Then asked her impression of Old Trafford, “I thought it would be more impressive.”  She won’t be rushing back.

Cruelly Punished for Wasteful Finishing

Pre-match line-up

Pre-match line-up

Despite taking holiday for the purpose, I always feel a bit guilty leaving work early to go to an away game but, having recently taken a job in central London, it was great to be able to leave after lunch and walk to Euston in less than 20 minutes.  The journey up North was uneventful, although the sky got greyer and greyer as we got closer to Manchester.  Thankfully, the snow that had fallen earlier in the day had soon cleared and I must say that the outlook was brightened by the free red wine in first class.

When I arrived at the pre-match pub, there was a good gathering of North West Horns already present and we soon filled the little back room that we had occupied.  There was a late decision to go to the ground by tram rather than finding a cab, and our very own tram genius directed us to the opposite platform from the crowd in Man Utd scarves.  Despite some scepticism, this resulted in us being able to board an empty train marked ‘Not in Service’ that ensured a considerably more comfortable journey than the ‘locals’ who pushed their way on to an already packed carriage.

Preparing for a ball into the Man Utd box

Preparing for a ball into the Man Utd box

While queuing to get into the ground, there was a chap with a half and half scarf just in front of me.  As could have been guessed from his unfortunate garb, he was a (Spanish) tourist so I advised him on how best to hide the red and white portion of the scarf so as not to provoke others in the Watford end.  We then experienced another in a long line of ineffective searches as the steward had only a cursory look inside my rucksack, not bothering to disturb the Watford shirt that covered the rest of the contents, before giving me a “thorough” pat down that totally failed to investigate what was in my coat pockets which were bursting with metal objects.  Very strange indeed especially as I was told that a young man with a kindle was told that he couldn’t bring it in and had to return to the coach to leave it there.

Team news was that Flores had made four changes with Nyom, Prödl, Holebas and Abdi in for Paredes, Cathcart, Aké and Amrabat.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Holebas, Prödl, Britos, Nyom, Behrami, Watson, Capoue, Deeney, Abdi and Ighalo.

The referee in discussion with Deeney

The referee in discussion with Deeney

Watford started very brightly as Ighalo broke into the box in the first minute but could not fashion a shot.  The home side’s first chance came when Holebas almost succeeded in turning a cross from Blind past Gomes but, thankfully, the Brazilian made the save from his team mate.  Soon after a bizarre looping cross was headed wide of the near post by Martial.  Watford had a great chance to take the lead on 11 minutes as Deeney found Ighalo who made space to shoot but his shot was deflected wide.  From the resultant corner, Watson’s delivery just evaded Britos at the far post.  There was a comedy moment then as Memphis went on a dangerous run before hitting a shot that went out for a throw-in on the opposite side.  A poor pass was intercepted by Ighalo who, with only the keeper to beat, should have done better but took his shot too quickly so it was an easy catch for de Gea.  From a free kick, Deeney’s headed clearance dropped to Schneiderlin who shot just wide, much to the relief of the travelling Hornets.  At the other end, Deeney appeared to be trying to lob de Gea, but the pass reached Ighalo who had two defenders on him so was unable to shoot.  Memphis had a chance to redeem himself following his earlier mistake, but shot wide of the far post.  Watford threatened again as Capoue and Deeney exchanged passes before the Frenchman was hacked down by Fosu-Mensah who was booked for the challenge.  Watson played the free kick low to Holebas, whose shot was blocked before Prödl shot wide.

Watson lines up a free kick

Watson lines up a free kick

Watford had another tremendous chance as Deeney headed a Capoue cross down to Ighalo who turned and volleyed, but again the shot was just wide.  At the other end, the ball bounced off a couple of United heads in the Watford box before falling to Martial whose shot didn’t trouble Gomes.  Watford had yet another chance to open the scoring through Abdi, but his shot from the edge of the box cleared the target.  Ighalo attacked again, broke into the box and, with Deeney in space to his left, opted to shoot and de Gea saved with his legs.  United again failed to test Gomes as Herrera curled a cross wide of the far post.  The last chance of the first half fell to Ighalo, who picked up another poor back pass but, again, his shot was blocked by de Gea.  So we reached half time goalless and disappointed that Ighalo hadn’t finished at least one of his chances as he could have had a hat trick.

The Nigerian should have broken the deadlock early in the second half as he received an Abdi cross in an acre of space but he couldn’t control the ball and the chance was gone.  Behrami did very well to win the ball on the wing before finding Deeney who played a back heel to Capoue who powered his shot just over the target.  It was another great chance, but Capoue is destined never to score.  The visitors should have taken the lead in the 50th minute as a Watson corner was met by Prödl, whose header was cleared off the line.  Watford had another tremendous chance as Deeney found Ighalo who turned and curled a shot just wide.

Amrabat in the United box

Amrabat in the United box

At the other end, Gomes dived to save at the feet of Rashford and there was a delay while he received treatment.  Thankfully, he was fit to continue, and was in action again soon after, saving a Mata shot from the edge of the area.  The home side then won a free kick on the edge of the area that Memphis fired into the wall.  So, an hour into the game, the home side finally had a spell of pressure and the United fans were heard for the first time.  Then Deeney and Igahlo combined in attack, both ended up on the ground, but the referee decided there had been no infringement.  At the other end, Rashford played a ball across the face of the goal, but there was no United player on hand to convert.  Mata then threatened with a shot that curled wide just.  Abdi exchanged passes with Deeney but the resulting cross went begging.  Watford’s first substitution came with 20 minutes remaining as Suárez replaced Abdi while United replaced Rojo with Darmian.  The Spaniard was immediately in action as he broke into the box but was unable to fashion a shot.  He then played a lovely ball in to Ighalo in the box, but it bounced off the Nigerian’s heel and Odion was unable to get a shot in.  That was his final contribution to the game as he was replaced by Amrabat after a very frustrating evening in front of goal.  At this point a chant started behind me, I couldn’t quite catch the words until I realized that it was that old favourite Elton John’s Taylor-made Army.  Watford came close again as a cross from Holebas was blocked by de Gea but rebounded to Amrabat whose shot was deflected for a corner.  Watson’s delivery was again met by Prödl whose header was just wide.  Then Capoue intercepted a poor pass, his cross was missed by Suárez but met with a lovely volley from a defender to concede a corner.

Jostling for position at a corner

Jostling for position at a corner

After a brilliant spell when the visitors should have taken the lead, there was a certain inevitability to what happened next as Britos fouled Martial on the edge of the area, was booked and then Mata hit a lovely free kick over the wall and past Gomes, who had no chance.  Just heartbreaking for the visiting fans, who then watched open-mouthed as the majority of the United fans in the stand next to us left the stadium.  It was really quite shocking.  Your team takes a narrow lead 10 minutes before the end of the game and you just walk out.  Who are these people?  Flores made a final substitution with five minutes to go bringing Anya on for Behrami.  Watford never looked like drawing level despite the efforts of Amrabat who, first, looked to break but the ball bounced off his arm and he was booked for hand ball, a very harsh decision.  Then he crossed for Anya, who did not attack the ball so it rolled through to De Gea.  The game fizzled out with the visiting fans singing “1-0 and you all go home.”

Britos, Ighalo, Behrami and Holebas await a ball out of defence

Britos, Ighalo, Behrami and Holebas await a ball out of defence

It was a cruel result.  Watford had been tremendous and were defeated by a lovely set piece in a game that they should have won.  We had created most of the decent chances, but failed to finish so were punished.  You have to feel for Ighalo whose confidence is low.  He appears desperate to score and is getting into tremendous positions, but just cannot find the net.  It was very pleasing to see Capoue back on form and, in fact, to see the whole team harrying their opponents and working their socks off.  Quite rightly the Watford fans stood to cheer their team off, a marked contrast to the home fans who had long gone.

I wasn’t relishing the queue for the tram back to town, as my memory of our last visit was that we had to wait for an age.  However, I had reckoned without our tram ninja, who came to our rescue again taking us on a short detour to a stop where there was no queue and we got a seat on the first tram that arrived.  But it was a very deflated group who gathered for the post-match analysis.  We were immensely proud of our team, they had played some lovely football and taken the game to United and, but for their poor finishing would have been convincing winners.  Conversation then turned to the behaviour of the home crowd.  My first trip to Old Trafford was in the 80s when the noise that came from Stretford End was, quite frankly, terrifying.  The crowd on Wednesday evening seemed mostly to consist of day trippers in half and half scarves who were ticking a tourist box, but had no feeling for the game.  What an awful shame.

I am still gutted at the result but, to end on a positive note, we have now played the team lying fifth in the table twice and have matched them on both occasions.  We have dropped to 12th but, with 10 games to go, are still closer to the Champions League places than the relegation zone and that has got to bring a smile to any Watford fan’s face.