Tag Archives: Andre Gray

Deprived of Sleep and Entertainment

A kind welcome in the concourse

I had to be on the East coast of the US for work on Friday.  Travelling overnight to attend a football match felt like old times as I did that frequently when I lived there.  I was thankful that the flight was on time and I managed to get a few hours sleep so didn’t feel too bad on arrival.  Before I went to sleep on the flight, I took one last chance to watch the Match of the Day highlights of the Liverpool game.  I needed that positivity before a trip to Selhurst Park.  I was home just after 9am, so had plenty of time to shower, change and pack my bag for the football before heading for South London.

Having taken the wrong exit out of East Croydon station, I was somewhat disorientated, but finally found the pub and was pleased to find Jacque and Richard already there, we were later joined by Mike.  As we were readying to leave for the game, Mike had a sudden realisation that he had not brought his match ticket with him.  He contemplated returning home and, hopefully, making it back for the second half, but after a few panicked texts, he secured a replacement and so was able to see the whole game.  Whether that was a positive thing is open to question.  On the platform waiting for the train to Selhurst, we met a very friendly and pleasant Palace fan who engaged us in conversation.  He was full of praise about our performance against Liverpool last week and far from confident about his team’s prospects for the game.  We were appreciative of the praise but also shared his lack of confidence regarding our chances.

Femenia takes a throw-in

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one enforced change with Pereyra replacing the injured Deulofeu.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue; Pereyra, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.  While there were no ex-Watford players in the Palace team, they do have the lovely Ray Lew in their dugout, which means that I find it hard to wish them ill.

The first attack of note came from the Hornets as Hughes broke down the right and succeeded in reaching the penalty area where he was frustrated by a great tackle from Kouyaté.  Watford had a decent chance to take the lead after quarter of an hour when Doucouré beat a couple of defenders before shooting from a tight angle, but Guaita in the Palace goal was equal to his effort, Sarr latched onto the follow-up but his shot was blocked and deflected wide.  There was a rather strange incident as Hughes was fouled, but the ball broke for Sarr so the referee allowed advantage to be played.  However, Sarr was then flagged offside and, instead of bringing play back, the free kick went to the home side.  A baffling decision that was rightly protested by Watford’s players and fans, but the referee wasn’t moved.

Doucoure on the attack as Deeney and Capoue look on

The Hornets threatened again as Doucouré and Sarr broke forward while exchanging passes, but the resulting shots were blocked allowing the home side to break down the other end where Foster came out to head a lofted ball clear.  Watford had another chance to break the deadlock as Hughes cut inside and shot just wide of the far post.  The first chance for the home side came as Zaha found van Aanholt in the box but his cross was blocked by Foster and bounced off the Palace man for a goal kick.  It had been all Watford, so it was incredibly frustrating when the home side scored on 28 minutes after a counterattack, McArthur found Ayew on the edge of the box and he shot between two defenders and past Foster’s outstretched hand.  The defenders in question, Cathcart and Masina, really should have done better.  Kabasele had been down injured after a challenge during the attack that led to the goal, so VAR was invoked but the goal stood and, thankfully, Christian was able to continue after treatment.  The first booking of the game went to Femenía for pulling Zaha over.  Watford had a decent chance to hit back when Masina played a lovely ball over the top to Pereyra but he couldn’t position himself to take advantage and Guaita gathered the ball.  Zaha was then booked for a pull on Capoue.  The Palace man then went down very easily under a challenge from Hughes, which infuriated the Watford players.  The decision went against Zaha who was fortunate to avoid a second yellow.

Hughes readies to take a corner

So, we went into the half time break a goal behind to Palace’s only real shot of the half.  The Hornets were also unfortunate in the half time penalty shoot-out.  Although young Lucy from Watford was a star, scoring and impressing the commentator by celebrating with a cartwheel.

The first incident of note in the second half was a prolonged period of handbags after Capoue fouled Zaha.  There was a VAR check for a possible red card but, in the end, there were just cautions for Capoue and Kouyaté.  The game restarted with a free kick for Palace in a dangerous position which came to nothing as van Aanholt’s delivery was headed over by Ayew.  The next caution of the game went to Doucouré after pulling Zaha back.  Zaha was the next to create a scoring chance but Foster stood tall and the shot bounced off him.  The Hornets had a chance of their own as a free kick from Pereyra dropped for Deeney whose shot was blocked.  Then a lovely passing move from the Hornets finished with Pereyra shooting straight at Guaita.  There was another booking as Benteke was cautioned for a foul on Sarr having caught the youngster’s heel as he tried to escape.

Ignacio Pussetto

There was a half-chance for the Hornets as, from a Sarr cross, a mix up in the Palace defence almost allowed Hughes in but, eventually, Guaita gathered the ball.  Midway through the second period, Watford had the best chance of the half so far when Deeney tried a shot from distance that required a smart save from Guaita to tip it over.  There was another decent chance soon after when Sarr chipped the ball into the box for Doucouré whose looping header looked to be going in until Guaita pushed it around the post.  From the resulting corner, the ball reached Hughes whose shot from the edge of the area was blocked.  With 20 minutes to go, Hodgson made his first change, bringing Milivojevic on for McArthur.  The home side had a decent chance to increase their lead as Benteke tried a bicycle kick that hit the side netting.  With 15 minutes remaining, Pearson made a double substitution replacing Pereyra and Deeney with Pussetto and Welbeck.  The Hornets created a half chance as a long ball found Pussetto, who delivered a low cross for Sarr, but Guaita was the first to the ball.  Pearson made his final substitution bringing Gray on for Hughes, who left the field in front of the travelling Hornets and was warmly applauded.  There were five minutes of added time, but the only action of note was a chance for the home side to increase their lead as Benteke found Ayew, but Foster dived at his feet to avert the danger.

Masina takes a free kick

So, after the euphoria of last week, this was an unwelcome return to what has been the reality of most of this season.  It was a very disappointing game.  The Hornets had been the better team for most of the first half but, as so often this season, did not make the most of their chances and the home side scored after a counterattack.  Once they were ahead, Palace defended well and, apart from a brief spell in the second half, Watford never really looked like winning the point that their performance deserved.  Thankfully results elsewhere meant that we stayed out of the relegation zone on goal difference, but it felt like a wasted opportunity and, again, I worry that we won’t get the points that we need from the upcoming “winnable” games.

Another disappointment was the away crowd.  Last season, one of our party had made complaints when the gangway next to us had filled with fans who celebrated aggressively and caused injury to someone in our group.  The complaint had been referred to Croydon council, so we hoped to see an improvement in the stewarding on this occasion.  It was not apparent early in the game as a number of Watford fans started to take up positions in the gangway.  The stewards made some attempts to move these lads on, but most of their efforts led to complaints which meant that, for periods of the game, my view of one of the few sections of the pitch that I could otherwise see was blocked by stewards arguing with fans.  I have often said that I enjoy visiting Selhurst Park, but I realise now that this came from a time before our promotion when there were always a loads of spare seats in the away end and you could choose where to sit.  In those days I took up a place in the wooden seats at the back that were usually populated by those who wanted to stand and sing.  Nowadays everybody stands which means that, if you need to sit, you have no chance of seeing the game.  Added to that, even if you stand, if you are 5’6”, as I am, you won’t see a lot of the action

Our post-match analysis was to take place at Richard’s.  He lives in South London and he and his lovely wife had kindly invited us back for dinner and drinks.  When the football is as poor as it was on Saturday, a lovely evening with friends is all the therapy that you need.

 

A Rock and Roll Night Out on Merseyside

A proper old school paper ticket

It felt like groundhog day when I arrived in Liverpool.  It was just over a week since the futile trip for the postponed game and, after the two away games at the Liverpool clubs and the cup game against Everton, this was my fifth trip to Merseyside for a football match this season.

I dropped my things off at the hotel and picked up a message from Mike suggesting that we meet in the Excelsior, where we had spent a couple of happy hours on a previous trip.  After a quiet pint there, we headed for a pub in the city centre where we had an interesting encounter with some locals.  There was a well-dressed eccentric complaining about the long trip that he had taken to Widnes for a funeral.  I may well have misunderstood what he was saying but he seemed to be unconvinced that he had attended the correct funeral.  Also at the bar, were an elderly mother and son.  The son was very friendly and welcoming, the mother not so much, seeming to resent her quiet whisky being interrupted by Watford fans as she pointedly told us that she supported Liverpool.  Pete had taken the supporters coach and they had arrived very early.  So, after some negotiation with the steward, who didn’t want to let him get off, he made the trip across the Mersey and joined us for dinner.

Mike, Pete and I with Nasher and Prowsey

Mike is friends with Ian Prowse, a brilliant musician who we had seen in concert after the Liverpool game (https://amsterdam-music.com/).  Prowsey is a Tranmere fan so Mike had arranged to meet up with him before the game.  He had told Mike that he was going to the game with his mate, Nasher.  Nasher being Brian Nash from Frankie goes to Hollywood, so we found ourselves in the presence of two Liverpool music legends.  We met for dinner and then caught the Merseyrail for the journey across (under) the river and then caught a cab to the ground.  As there was still some time before kick-off, we went into the Prenton Park pub by the ground.  As we had wine with dinner, Pete and I decided we would continue.  The barmaid looked a little confused but found a couple of long glasses in which to serve our drinks.

We said our goodbyes and headed for the ground and I was rather delighted to see that the turnstiles actually had operators to whom I could hand the huge paper ticket.  Having just said goodbye to Nasher outside Prenton Park, it was a little surreal to hear “Two Tribes” playing in the stadium.  The pre-game playlist also included the theme from “The Rockford Files”, a real flashback to my youth.

The Prenton Park pitch

Team news was that Pearson was putting out a very young team with first starts for Barrett, Whelan, Hungbo and João Pedro.  So, the starting XI was Bachmann; Holebas, Kabasele, Spencer-Adams, Barrett; Hungbo, Quina, Dele-Bashiru, Whelan; João Pedro, Gray.  During the week João Pedro had been complaining about the cold on social media, so I can only imagine what he thought when he emerged from the tunnel to find a very muddy pitch and the ground enveloped in an icy fog.  Although, regarding the pitch, kudos must be given to the grounds staff who had worked very hard to ensure that it was playable, even if a police officer outside had commented that anyone who attempted a sliding tackle was likely to end up in the stands.

Watford started the game brightly and created an early chance when Hungbo escaped upfield and tried a shot from outside the area, but his effort was blocked.  Then João Pedro went on an excellent run before cutting inside and hitting a curling shot that was blocked by Monthe.  The Hornets threatened again as Whelan crossed for João Pedro who could only turn the ball over the bar.

Spencer-Adams and Whelan

Tranmere’s first goal attempt came as a cross-field ball was played to Blackett-Taylor who shot high and wide of the near post.  Then Danns tried his luck but his shot flew wide of the far post.  Nearly half an hour had passed before the first shot on target which came as a deep ball was played to Morris whose effort was blocked by Bachmann, but the ball dropped to Blackett-Taylor, who should have done better with his shot which cleared the bar.  The home side were dominating at this point and a free kick was cleared only as far as Danns who shot high and wide of the far post.  Tranmere took the lead on 35 minutes after the Hornets failed to clear from a corner, there was a scramble in the box before the ball fell to Monthe who fired past Bachmann.  The Hornets had a half chance to restore parity before the break, but the shot from Hungbo was poor and didn’t trouble Davies in the Tranmere goal.

Pearson made a change at the break replacing Dele-Bashiru with Hinds.  The home side won a corner early in the second half, Ridehalgh got on the end of it but his header was easily gathered by Bachman.  Then Watford created a decent chance as João Pedro found himself one-on-one with the keeper, but Davies made the save, the rebound fell to Hinds whose shot was over the target.

Celebrating the equaliser

The first booking of the game went to Jennings for a foul on Hungbo.  The Hornets had another good chance to draw level as a free kick was punched clear and dropped to Holebas who met it with a decent volley that hit the post.  Tranmere made their first change on 64 minutes replacing Ferrier with Mullin.  Watford were almost architects of their own downfall when Bachmann dropped a corner and was a little lucky that the referee adjudged him to have been fouled.  The home side looked to increase their lead when Mullin tried a run into the box, but Bachmann was out to gather.  The equaliser came from Watford’s first corner of the game, the ball fell to Hinds, his first attempt was blocked, but the ball rebounded to him and he finished past Davies.  Tranmere had a great chance to regain the lead almost immediately as Mullin got on the end of a long pass, took the ball around Bachmann but his shot hit the outside of the post.  The Hornets then threatened as Hinds crossed for João Pedro, but Davies intervened to put the ball out for a corner.  Kabasele had a chance to grab a winner when he got on the end of a cross from Holebas but could not find the target.  With 10 minutes to go, Pearson was forced to make a substitution as João Pedro had picked up an injury, Dalby was the man who took his place, another youngster making his debut.  Tranmere were pushing for a winner as Danns tried to break into the box, but he was stopped by a great tackle from Spencer-Adams.  The home side could have won it in time added on after some terrible defending by the Hornets, Holebas knocked the ball into the path of Danns who really should have done better but shot wide of the target.

Dalby and Barrett

So, the game went into extra time.  Gray messed up the kick-off, touching the ball twice and so conceding a free kick on the centre circle.  Very odd indeed.  Andre, who was captain for the night, looked to make amends as he picked up a decent ball, advanced and crossed for Hinds whose header back across goal was cleared.  Whelan then had a chance to put the visitors ahead with a lovely curling shot that was stopped by a great save from Davies.  Holebas, who really did not appear to be enjoying his evening, went on a gorgeous mazy run through the Tranmere defence.  It came to nothing, but it was great fun to watch.  With five minutes to go in the first period of extra time, each side made a substitution with Bennetts replacing Hungbo for the Hornets and Danns making way for Gilmour for the home side.  There was danger for the visitors as the ball was bobbling around the Watford box, Riedhalgh crossed for Morris but the header was wide of the target.  The winner resulted from more poor defending from the Hornets as Hinds had the chance to clear the ball but instead kept it in on the right touchline, the ball fell for Gilmour who put in a cross, Blackett-Taylor flicked it on for Mullin to head past Bachmann to regain the lead for Tranmere.  The home side could have extended their lead just before half time in the added period as a corner was cleared to Morris whose shot flew just wide of the near post.

Bachmann takes a goal kick

Each side made a change at the start of the second period of extra time with Quina making way for Wise (son of Dennis) for the Hornets and Woods replacing Blackett-Taylor for the home side.  Watford never looked like getting back in the game and the home fans were enjoying themselves immensely, with “Tequila” ringing out from the stand behind the goal.  As the final whistle approached, there was an announcement asking the fans not to run on the pitch at the end of the game as they would damage it!  Needless to say, the request was in vain and, as the final whistle went, there was a mini pitch invasion.

The reaction of the Watford fans at the final whistle was mostly resignation, although one lad was walking down the stand shouting angrily at Gray.  The majority politely applauded the players, who responded in kind, and then headed out.  The coaches were waiting outside the away end, so Pete left us there and Mike and I headed back to the Prenton Park where a very happy Prowsey was already at the bar and planning to get tickets for himself and his daughter for the visit of Manchester United.  Mike and I commented that we already had tickets for that tie that we now couldn’t use.  We headed back to the City and the lads bumped into a woman that they knew in the lift at the station.  When she left Prowsey said, “That was Janice Long.”  I hadn’t recognised her.  We had one last drink in a pub that was playing a video of Liverpool icons from the 80s.  So, I found myself in the very odd position of watching the bloke I was chatting with on the telly.

Barrett, Spencer-Adams and Hinds challenging at a set piece

In the cold light of day, while it had been a disappointing performance from the youngsters, it was not unexpected.  They had started brightly enough and there had been a few decent moments, but the Tranmere team were too strong for them and, ultimately, appeared to want it more.  Of the youngsters, Hinds did well when he came on and deserved his goal.  Spencer-Adams has looked promising in both games and Whelan had a decent second half.  Of the first-team players, Kabasele put in a decent shift, Holebas had a couple of very decent chances but looked unhappy to be there and Gray was mostly anonymous, which was very sad to see.

I have to say that, after three games in a week, I was not heartbroken at the thought of a weekend off.  The prospect of playing Man United in the next round had not excited me at all.  Given our precarious position in the Premier League, this extended break will likely be beneficial as it gives the team longer to work together on the training pitch.  The Tranmere fans will love the visit of United and I wish them a lot of luck as they were tremendous at both of the games.

Travelling to two midweek games in one week, both ending in defeat, may not appear to be the most enjoyable way to use my precious holiday from work.  But I have been going to football for long enough not to rely on the game to provide enjoyment and my Thursday night on Merseyside with the rock stars was actually a lot of fun.

A Disappointing Set Back in Birmingham

Craig Dawson

Another Tuesday lunchtime, another trip to Euston to travel to a match.  On this occasion, at least, I was confident of seeing a game.

I arrived in Birmingham bright and early.  It was another lovely day, although rather icy.  I dropped my overnight things off at the hotel.  I had stayed in London on Monday night, after a trip to the theatre and, on arrival, was horrified to realise that I had forgotten to bring my yellow shirt.  I was vainly hoping that we would have an outing for the away shirt, but a check on the Premier League twitter feed confirmed that I would be unsuitably attired for the game.  At least I had two yellow, red and black scarves with me.

Having dropped my bag, I headed for the designated pub to find the rest of my party already gathered at a table near the door.  The usual suspects were joined by Jacque’s colleague, Adam, a Villa fan who was braving our company again so soon after the home game.  After a couple of pints and a lovely meal with great company, we set off to catch the bus to Villa Park.   For some reason, I found myself in a very irritable mood on the bus (not that unusual for me, but there was no reason for it on this occasion).  So, when I met Kate on the way in and she said, “I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I couldn’t help agreeing with her.  When we took our seats in the row second from the back of the lower tier, I was delighted to see that the seats behind me were occupied by the family who sit in front of me in the Rookery.  On National Hug Day, the greeting was as warm as I would have hoped.

Ben Foster takes a goal kick

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one enforced change from the weekend with the injured Sarr replaced by Pereyra.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Dawson, Mariappa; Capoue, Chalobah; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney.

The game kicked off and the Hornets created an early chance as Deulofeu met a cross from Pereyra, but the header was easily caught by Reina in the Villa goal.  Watford had another half chance as Mariappa crossed for Deeney who tried to side foot home but, again, the Villa keeper wasn’t overly tested.  The home side then had a couple of chances from corners but, first Konsa, and then Hause headed wide of the target.  Villa’s next chance came as Grealish crossed for Trézéguet whose shot was blocked.  On the half hour mark, Pereyra picked up the ball on the edge of the area turned and shot but his effort was blocked.  At the other end, Targett took a shot from the edge of the area, but it was straight at Foster.  Soon after, the ball reached El Ghazi in the box, but his shot was over the bar from what looked like an offside position (the lino on our side was struggling to keep up).  Targett then tried his luck, but his shot was from an awkward angle and he was unable to get it on target.

Celebrating Deeney’s goal

The Hornets took the lead on 38 minutes when a lovely cross from Deulofeu was met by the head of Deeney who beat Reina at the Holte End, which will have amused him greatly.  It certainly prompted massive celebrations in the away section and a loud chorus of “That boy Troy Deeney, he hates the Villa.”  We should have been two up before half time as Deulofeu went on a tremendous run, it was clear that the angle was too acute and he had two team mates in the box ready for a tap-in, but he proceeded to take the shot himself and only found the side-netting.  The last action of the half was the first caution of the game which went to Mings for a late foul on Doucouré.

The half time whistle went to boos from the home supporters.  It had been an even contest and very dull.  The Hornets were somewhat lucky to be ahead at the break although they had created the best chances of the afternoon and, if Deulofeu had been less selfish, they could have been two goals to the good.

The half time entertainment was a contest to get a football onto a target on the pitch with prizes assigned according to where the ball stopped.  One bloke won a season ticket for next season.  I was going to make a joke here about feeling sorry for him, but my experience of Villa fans is that they are great and I am sure he was delighted.

Pereyra alert in the Villa box

The first chance of the second half went to the home side from a free kick but it was headed clear by Dawson.  Villa threatened again from a corner but Trézéguet’s delivery was headed over by Hause.  Then a dangerous looking shot from distance by Konsa flew well wide of the far post.  The Hornets should have scored a second when a cross from Deulofeu was parried by Reina to Deeney who had two chances to finish from close range, but Reina did brilliantly to keep them out.  The first substitution of the game was made by the home side as Drinkwater made way for Luiz.  Watford threatened again with a lovely one-two between Pereyra and Doucouré that was stopped by an excellent tackle from Guilbert.  Villa had a half chance when Targett met a deep cross, but the header was easy for Foster.  There was controversy on 63 minutes as Mings stopped an attack by Deulofeu by handling the ball.  The Villa man had already been booked, so was lucky not to see red.  Villa drew level on 68 minutes when Grealish played in Targett whose shot was saved by Foster, but the ball dropped to Luiz who hit the target.  The goal felt like it had been coming as Watford had been sitting back and giving the home side too much space.  The Hornets had a chance to hit back from a corner, Reina spilled Chalobah’s delivery but was able to recover before any Watford player could capitalise.

Capoue and Doucoure leave the lads to take a free kick

With 15 minutes remaining, Pearson made his first change as Chalobah made way for Pussetto.  I thought it was a slightly odd substitution, I would have taken Pereyra off.  A worrying Villa attack was stopped when Foster came out to gather the ball before Trézéguet could reach it.  Cathcart was booked for a foul on Grealish during the build-up.  Villa then made a second substitution replacing Trézéguet with Vassilev.  With 10 minutes remaining, Mariappa tried to test the Villa keeper with a cross, but Reina was able to gather and Doucouré was booked for colliding with the keeper as he tried to challenge for the ball.  With nine minutes to go, Pearson made a second substitution replacing Pereyra with Gray.  Andre was immediately involved in a very promising move as he raced forward, with Deulofeu in close attendance, but his square pass to his teammate was very poor and was easily cut out.  The Hornets created a better chance as Doucouré crossed for Pussetto who headed back towards Gray but Andre couldn’t quite reach the ball and again it was cleared.  There were shouts for a penalty as Grealish tumbled in the box, but the referee waved the protests away.  Pearson made a final change in time added on replacing Deulofeu with Kabasele.  Unfortunately the substitution did not shore up the defence as he would have hoped as Watford failed to clear a free kick and a shot from Konsa deflected off Mings and past Foster to give the home side the win with the last kick of the game.  It was a cruel end to the match and to Watford’s great run.

Masina and Deulofeu prepare to take a free kick

We left the ground feeling very disappointed and had to walk through a crowd of exuberant Villa fans chanting, “Deeney what’s the score?”  On that note, it was lovely to see Villa fans on social media after the game singing the praises of Troy for stopping to have his photo taken with them.  A true pantomime villain who loves the back and forth with the fans.  We were quickly back on the bus to the city centre and retired to a pub to drown our sorrows.

That was probably the worst performance that we have put in since Nigel Pearson took over.  We greatly missed Sarr, who has been superb in recent weeks and has been frightening the life out of opposition defences.  But my biggest beef was that we sat back too much and allowed Villa space.  At our place, we had pressed them and got under the skin of Grealish who became petulant and increasingly ineffective.  He had a much better game at Villa Park and they looked stronger as a result.  But, looking at the balance of chances, it was the old story of not making the most of our best opportunities.  Had we converted those chances, we would have taken the three points, although a lot of the credit for that has to go to Pepe Reina.

So, we end the evening back in the relegation zone, if only on goal difference, and my nerves started jangling again.  My angry reaction after the game, that that was what happens if you become complacent, was directed at myself rather than any of the players.  But we have some very winnable games coming up, so we just need to forget this set back and continue playing as well as we have been in the last month.  If we do that, we will be fine.

 

A Win to Make GT Proud

My favourite photo with GT and Rita (and Don)

The nightmares started on Friday night.  I have a recurring dream in which I am at a match but am unable to see the pitch from my vantage point which is often in a stand that is facing away from the pitch.  On this occasion, the Watford crowd at Bournemouth had been housed in a container.  Now, there have been some issues with our fans at Bournemouth in the past, but putting us in a metal box seemed a little excessive.  Saturday night I struggled to sleep but, when I did, I had my other recurrent dream of trying and failing to get to a destination.  These are usually football related, although this time the destination was a bit vague, but I knew what it meant.  There is quite a lot going on in my life at the moment.  I am in the process of buying a flat and readying a house for sale.  Work is busy with some crucial deadlines coming up.  But I am having nightmares about a football match.  I fear that there is something wrong with my priorities.

I left home at 8:40 to catch the train.  It seemed a little early on a Sunday, but I could hardly complain as Jacque had to leave Leighton Buzzard on a rail replacement bus at 6-ish in order to make the connection with the train she had booked from London.  Needless to say, at that hour on a Sunday there were few people on the platform for the train to Slough and I was able to occupy my ‘lucky’ seat, so all was right with the world.  As I checked social media it was full of fellow Watford fans expressing their love for Graham Taylor on the anniversary of his passing.  This added an extra significance to the day.

Capoue prepares for kick-off

We had arranged to meet in the usual pub but, due to the 2pm Sunday kick-off, the timing of my arrival meant that I would arrive before the pub’s scheduled opening time.  Alice was arriving by car at a similar time, so arranged to meet me at the station so that we could kill some time together.  Just before my train arrived in Bournemouth, there was a message from Pete telling me that he had found a table in the pub, which was already open.  So, I met Alice and, after a short walk, we had a drink and a seat in the pub.  My recollection had been that the pub menu was rather limited (mostly burgers), so I asked whether they had any food on.  The news that there were a couple of roasts or a burger if we wanted one was very welcome.  I had had no breakfast, so the lovely plate of meat and several veg which was served to me set me up very nicely for the afternoon.

I left myself plenty of time to get to the ground and through the security that is always in place in Bournemouth.  Thankfully, on this occasion, we arrived to find a very short queue and were soon through the turnstiles.  It was Alice’s birthday, and she had left for the ground a little earlier than I did to meet some friends.  When I found her inside with Mr Fincham, a man known for starting chants, she recounted that he had regaled her with a booming chorus of Happy Birthday that was soon picked up as the entire concourse joined in, much to Alice’s embarrassment/delight.  There was also another song being sung in the concourse, “Super Nigel Pearson” which was catchy and simple and, by the time I took my seat in the stand, I knew (nearly all) the words.  Our party soon gathered in the stands including my niece who lives in Bournemouth so it was a home game for her.

Doucoure and Lerma tangle

Team news was that Pearson had made two enforced changes from the Wolves game with Masina and Mariappa in for Kabasele (suspended) and Femenía (injured).  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Dawson, Mariappa; Capoue, Chalobah; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.  I was disappointed to see that Aké had returned for Bournemouth.  I still hurts that he is playing for them rather than us and he always plays brilliantly against us.

The Hornets made a bright start to the game as Deeney played the ball out to Doucouré who put in a low cross but Deulofeu, who was charging into the box, could not reach it.  Then Deeney released Sarr on the wing, the first touch was a bit heavy but he managed to win a corner that came to nothing.  The first chance for Bournemouth came as a miskick allowed the ball into the Bournemouth box, it looked worrying for the Hornets as Solanke almost reached it, but he slipped over and Foster was able to gather.  Then Bournemouth won a free kick about 30 yards out.  Harry Wilson blasted the ball towards the Watford goal, but Foster managed to push the ball around the post.   Then there was a bit of niggle between Lerma and Doucouré which threated to get out of hand and Mike Dean had words, but no cards were shown.  The first caution of the game went to Adam Smith for a nasty looking tackle on Sarr.

Celebrating Doucoure’s goal

The Hornets had a decent chance on 18 minutes when Doucouré found Deulofeu at the near post, but stand-in keeper, Travers, was able to block the shot.  The resulting corner was met by the head of Masina whose effort flew wide of the far post.  The home side threatened again as a shot from distance by Harry Wilson was deflected for a corner.   With five minutes to go to half time Lerma got the ball in a dangerous position on the edge of the box, but his shot was woeful flying high into the stand behind the goal.  It was the Hornets who took the lead just before half time.  Francis played a back pass to Travers, Deulofeu closed him down forcing a hasty clearance that fell to Sarr who raced forward and crossed for Doucouré who controlled the ball before shooting past Travers and sending the travelling Hornets into delirium.  It was noted that, unlike previous visits, the goal was not greeted with a flare.  But, with my niece not making as many games this season, it was really lovely to share a goal celebration and hug with her.

Cathcart, Deeney and DAwson challenging in the Bournemouth box

So, we went into the break feeling very happy.  It hadn’t been a classic half of football, but there had been some very good signs and the goal had left us all feeling very positive.  The half time entertainment consisted of a “beer goggle challenge” in which disorientated fans tried to score a penalty against the mascot.  Most of the efforts were woeful and it was won by the Watford fans due to a single goal which followed a very clever run up and, it has to be said, he was the only fella who managed to get a decent strike on the ball.

The Hornets created the first goal-scoring opportunity of the second half as Sarr tried a shot from distance that deflected off Aké for a corner.  The Senegalese youngster then had a great chance to double Watford’s lead after receiving a pass from Deulofeu, but the shot was weak and easily cleared.  Then Bournemouth won a corner, but Fraser’s delivery was met by a header from Wilson that flew over the bar.  A lovely passing move from the Hornets deserved more as Sarr found Doucouré who fed Deulofeu, but the final shot was poor with Geri shooting high and wide of the near post.  Then Sarr found Deeney who tried to lift the ball over the defence, but the effort was cleared and a frustrated Deeney was booked for pulling Harry Wilson down as he attempted to escape.

Celebrating Deeney’s strike

The home side made a double substitution on the hour mark bringing Billing and Cook on for Lerma and Gosling.  Billing’s first contribution was a dangerous run into the Watford box that was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Capoue.  Chalobah then tried his luck with a shot from the edge of the area that cleared the target.  The second goal for the Hornets came on 65 minutes after Sarr rode a tackle and made his way to the bye-line, he cut the ball back towards Doucouré who was crowded out but managed to divert the ball to Deeney who came flying in and powered the ball past Travers.  This time a flare did go off, so we were unable to see the restart.  But the smoke had cleared by the time Deulofeu went on a terrific run into the opposition box, his shot was blocked but the ball rebounded to him and he crossed for Deeney who volleyed goalwards but Travers made the save.  At the other end there was a half chance for the home team as a headed clearance fell to Billing but he shanked his shot high and wide.  As the clock ticked over towards 72 minutes the travelling Hornets blasted out a loud chorus of one Graham Taylor in memory and appreciation of Watford’s greatest ever manager.  The Hornets created another great chance as Deulofeu found Deeney in the box, the ball was returned and Geri hit a wonderful shot that a defender managed to head to safety.

Celebrating Pereyra’s goal

With 15 minutes remaining, Bournemouth made their final substitution replacing Harry Wilson with Surridge.  Soon after, Pereyra replaced Sarr and then Quina came on for Doucouré.  I noticed that Pearson had given both of the players who were substituted a cuddle and talked with them as they came off.  What I hadn’t noticed, but have read subsequently, was that Sarr had reacted badly to his withdrawal and that Pearson had a word with Doucouré who went and chatted to the youngster and smoothed things over.  Following his introduction, Pereyra was immediately involved with an uncharacteristic (and impressive) defensive tackle.  In time added on Deulofeu made way for Gray.  Then Pereyra went on a storming run before crossing for Gray who was tackled, but managed to get a shot in that was cleared off the line but Pereyra was following up, chested it down and volleyed for our third which extinguished any lingering doubts about where the points were going.

The final whistle went to loud cheers and hugs and Alice declaring “Happy birthday to me!”.

Chalobah takes a corner

There was much excitement after the game as phones were proffered displaying the table showing Watford out of the relegation zone for the first time this season.  Nobody in the away end wanted to head for the exits as we stayed to cheer our heroes.  The Nigel Pearson chant had had a good airing, but there was always time for another chorus as well as chants for Deeney, Doucouré and anyone else who attracted our attention.  Then lovely Nate Chalobah came over and pumped his fists at the crowd and was greeted with a cheer.  A repeat fist pump elicited the same reaction.  He headed away from us and the crowd responded with ‘oooooooohhhh’, he turned around and pumped his fist and was rewarded with another cheer.  This was repeated another couple of times before he reached Pearson in the centre of the field and the two of them pumped their fists in unison.  I know that this loses a lot in the telling but it was a gorgeous moment and I had a tear in my eye at the togetherness.

As we made our way out of the ground, there were more celebrations with broad smiles and warm hugs with friends.

We headed back to the pub for a celebratory pint/glass of wine and to cheer City on against Villa.  It felt odd to be cheering one of the bigger teams against one that was struggling but needs must.  The crowd in the pub was a mix of fans of the two teams and was absolutely lovely.  The landlady even commented that she was sure we were enjoying our day after the result.

Adam Masina

The post-match discussion centred around how impressive our team had been.  There were times when we played some absolutely gorgeous football and the team are actually playing as a team.  A criticism earlier in the season had been that they were playing a lot of clever passes that just went to the opposition.  On this occasion there was some exquisite passing and it was a joy to watch.  The defence had been really solid and there has to be a special mention for Adam Masina, who was quite brilliant, as well as Dawson who has turned into the solid defender that we were expecting when he arrived.  The midfield was magnificent.  Capoue was excellent as always, Doucouré is back to his best after a terrible start to the season, but the special joy for me was seeing Chalobah finally putting in imperious performances.  I had worried that, after too many injuries, he would never return to his best but his recent performances have been just wonderful to watch.  Sarr started a little slowly and seemed to be struggling against Aké in the first half, but once he started taking on the defenders he was brilliant and made two of our three goals.  Similarly, Deulofeu wasn’t getting as much of the ball as he would have liked, but he worked his socks off and was a constant threat to the Bournemouth defence.  Then there is Troy Deeney.  During his absence with injury there were some that doubted that his return would make that much of a difference as he was not the goal scoring phenomenon that he had been.  He has proved all the nay-sayers wrong as his organisation and leadership has made a huge difference.  Of course, I cannot finish this without heaping praise upon Nigel Pearson.  Before he arrived, we were watching a team of talented individuals who had lost their way.  He has added a focus and organisation that has transformed those individuals into a formidable team and watching Watford is an absolute joy again.

We headed home at a reasonable time and I decided to accompany my friends on the London train as far as Basingstoke rather than taking the (slightly earlier) train directly to Reading.  It was only when we took our seats in cattle class that they all mentioned that they had first class tickets and were slumming it for me.  Still we had a great time eulogising our performance, watching the highlights and listening to Jon Marks’ commentary for the goals.  We were also joined by another regular away fan and discovered that we all had a mutual dislike for ‘plucky’ Bournemouth and their manager and how special a win over them felt.

When I changed trains at Basingstoke I was left alone with my thoughts.  This was one of the most enjoyable days out this season.  The game was a “six-pointer” against another team who are struggling and we beat them comprehensively.  The talk after the game was of a top half finish, which may be a stretch but does not sound impossible as it would have done a couple of months ago.  But, on the anniversary of Graham Taylor’s passing, we reflected on a team who worked hard and worked together and a fanbase that were totally engaged and felt part of the team.  It was a performance on and off the pitch that would have made GT proud and that is the ultimate praise from me.

From Coasting to Capitulation

Daniel Bachmann

Before the game, I was a little surprised to discover that the last time that we had played Tranmere Rovers had been GT’s final home game as manager in April 2001.  I was living in the US at the time and had flown home to be at the match.  From memory, it was an uninspiring draw and fans were unhappy.  I was also at the previous home game against them, the Easter Saturday tie which had looked to be heading for a dull defeat until two goals and two dismissals for the Hornets resulted in a comeback win that sparked our run to the play-offs in 1999.  Very happy memories of that one

It was nice to be back to the usual routine of a 3pm Saturday kick-off and I was in the West Herts just after midday.  They were clearly not expecting a big crowd as the car park stewards were nowhere to be seen.  But Don was in his usual spot and all was right with the world.  Jacque was getting food, so I went to join her and was rather gratified when the woman behind the counter identified our location as “the TV table”.  It is either that or “Are you sitting with Don?”  We are creatures of habit.  There were fond reminiscences about our visit to hospitality for the Wolves game.  Trond asked if we had been sitting in the new overhang which is in front of where they sit and commented that it had moved a lot more than in previous games.

The mysterious Spencer-Adams

Unsurprisingly, the team news was that there were nine changes from the Wolves game with only Dawson and Chalobah keeping their places.  I am ashamed to say that there was one name in the starting line-up that I didn’t recognise (Spencer-Adams).  As the U23s generally play their matches in the afternoon these days, I don’t get to see them anymore.  The starting XI was Bachmann; Masina, Spencer-Adams, Dawson, Mariappa; Dele-Bashiru, Chalobah, Quina; Pereyra, Gray, Success.

The walk down Vicarage Road was rather refreshing as there were no touts or half-and-half scarves.  But I was rather disappointed to find that the programmes had sold out, my search of the Rookery concourse failing to find any of the programme stalls still open.  That’ll teach me for leaving the pub so late.

The game kicked off at 15:01 in support of the “Heads Up” campaign and was designed to encourage everyone to take a minute to think about their mental health.

Celebrating Dele_Bashiru’s opener

There was a fairly quiet start to the game, although the Tranmere crowd, which was just under 2700, were already making a noise.  With 12 minutes on the clock, the Hornets won a corner.  This was played short, Chalobah found Dele-Bashiru at the edge of the box and he hit a lovely shot from distance past Chapman in the Tranmere goal to put the Hornets in the lead.  The home side were two up soon after as Tranmere struggled to clear, a shot from Success was blocked and the ball was cleared to Chalobah who also beat Chapman with a shot from outside the area.  Nate ran straight to Pearson to celebrate, so clearly there were no hard feelings after his quick substitution in the Villa game.  There was a decent chance of a third for the Hornets after 20 minutes when Quina made space for himself and unleashed a shot that was deflected over the bar.  Chalobah had a decent chance to score a second following a corner, but this time his shot was well over the bar.  Watford threatened again as Pereyra played a through ball for Gray but Andre was unable to reach it and it ran through to the keeper.  Just before the half hour mark Rovers won a corner, the delivery flew harmlessly across the goal.  Watford scored a third on 34 minutes when Success beat a defender before passing to Gray who helped it on to Pereyra who blasted past Chapman.  Tranmere had a chance to pull one back when a corner found Clarke at the far post, but his header was wide of the target.  They threatened again as a shot from Monthé deflected off the head of Dawson for a corner that came to nothing.  Bachmann was finally called into action with 5 minutes to go to half time, but the low curling shot by Jennings was easily gathered.   Jennings created another chance in time added on at the end of the half but his shot from distance was also comfortably stopped by Bachmann.

Mapps congratulates Chalobah (missed the hug with Pearson)

The half time whistle went with the Watford faithful feeling very comfortable.  It had been a convincing performance in the first half and the lads appeared to be coasting.

There was a change for the Hornets at half time which meant the much anticipated debut of João Pedro who came on in place of Chalobah, who had picked up an injury.  Tranmere made a double substitution with Blackett-Taylor and Woods replacing Payne and Nelson.  The first action from the Brazilian wonder boy was to jump into a tackle on Caprice giving away a free kick.  But he was soon showing his attacking skills as he received a pass from Pereyra and took a shot that was blocked.  He created a better chance soon after as Success went on a run before finding him in space, the shot was excellent and flew just wide of the near post.  Watford threatened again as a corner was played out to Quina who mishit his effort, the ball finished with Dawson whose shot was high and wide.  The visitors won a corner of their own, but the cross was easily caught by Bachmann.  Watford made a second substitution on the hour mark with Whelan coming on to make his debut in place of Quina who had picked up an injury.  Out of nowhere, the visitors then had the ball in the Watford net as Blackett-Taylor crossed for Jennings who headed in at the near post.  The flag was up indicating offside, but the shouts from the Watford end of “sit down, shut up” soon looked rather foolish as the VAR overruled the lino and allowed the goal.  This prompted joyful chants of “VAR, VAR” from the visiting supporters.

Masina and Success congratulating Pereyra on his goal (honestly!)

Tranmere had another decent chance as Jennings tried a flick at the near post, but Bachmann pushed it over the bar.  Jennings was then booked for a foul on João Pedro.  It was a poor foul, but disappointing to see the youngster roll over three times after the contact.  No harm done as, soon after, he went on a lovely run which deserved better, but nobody could get on the end of his cross.  Pearson made his final change and it was another player making his debut as Mason Barrett replaced Spencer-Adams.    Disaster befell the Hornets on 77 minutes as Bachmann failed to catch a cross from Blackett-Taylor, the ball dropped and was played to Monthé who turned the ball in past a couple of defenders on the line.  Tranmere made a final change bringing Mullin on for Ferrier.  There had been an indication that some of the Watford players were struggling for fitness and it was rather concerning to see Masina giving Success a leg massage, presumably to ward off cramp (GT would have been livid).  As I shouted encouragement, the thought crossed my mind that I had never been to Prenton Park, so what happened next is all my fault.  Blackett-Taylor was tackled by Barrett on the corner of the box.  He went down under the challenge and the initial decision from the referee was that it was a corner.  The Tranmere fans were shouting for VAR with good reason.  The decision was that it should have been a penalty and the footage shown on the big screen afterwards confirmed that as the correct decision.  Tranmere substitute, Mullin, stepped up and sent Bachmann the wrong way to draw the visitors level with three minutes left on the clock.  To add insult to injury, a couple of minutes later Pereyra was shown a straight red for a rather innocuous foul on Blackett-Taylor.  VAR was definitely not our friend on this afternoon as the decision stood and we played the six minutes of added time with ten men.  Watford had a chance to regain the lead when Success was taken down of the edge of the box by Monthé, who earned a yellow card for his trouble.  The free kick was awful as Masina played it short to Dele-Bashiru who played a return pass, but the Moroccan got under the ball and shot high and wide.

A first look at Joao Pedro

The final whistle went to boos and the sight of a lot of people storming out.  There was one bright spot in the gloom, though, as Masina came over and gave a child his shirt.  He was then looking in the crowd for someone.  When he finally spotted the person he was looking for, he waved and then came into the crowd and gave them his undershirt and a warm hug.  My sisters told me that, during the warm-up, he had kicked a ball into the crowd which had hit a woman.  She was rather shocked and upset at the time and his apologies had seemed to fall on deaf ears, although the offer of his gloves had been taken up by her husband.  Thankfully she was recovered by the end of the game and the apology, the shirt and the hug were gratefully received.

Back to the West Herts and there were a lot of very glum faces and a sense of shock.  We had been coasting at half time and Rovers had been poor.  But the loss of Chalobah and then Quina changed the game and the whole of the second half seemed to be played with Watford on the back foot.  I briefly thought that it looked like one of those games that Liverpool used to play in the 80s when they would play for a draw in the first leg of a league cup game before battering the opposition in the second leg.  But those games were controlled 0-0 draws.  This game was quite baffling.  It has to be said that it was an opportunity for those who were on the fringes to show Pearson what they can do.  Sadly, I don’t think that Success or Gray did anything that would convince him to include them against Bournemouth.  However, Chalobah had another good outing, Dele-Bashiru looked excellent and João Pedro put in a decent showing.  The fitness problems of the fringe players was a cause for concern and they may find themselves with some extra routines in training.

Spencer-Adams, Gray and Dele-Bashiru

I have to say that I did not share the concerns of some who thought this may derail our recovery in the Premier League as most of the players are not regular starters.  I did worry about it derailing the U23s who have had a decent season so far.  But they played on Monday and won 6-1, so no worries there.

We really could do without another game at the moment, but I am very much looking forward to a trip to Birkenhead.  If the Tranmere fans are half as impressive at their place as they were at Vicarage Road, we are in for a fun evening.

 

A Boxing Day Draw Against the Blades

Tony Currie Stand named after a player who impressed for both clubs

It has been a while since we had to travel any distance on Boxing Day, so it was with some disappointment that I noted that the eagerly anticipated trip to Sheffield United was to be played on Boxing Day.  Most of our usual away crowd decided to give the game a miss, but my sister and brother-in-law decided that they would go and offered to drive, which made me very happy indeed.

Having spent Christmas Day with Rose and her family, I left theirs bright and early to drive to Cate and Nigel’s.  My lovely sister had sent me on my way with a care package of turkey sandwiches and sausage rolls, which was much appreciated.

The M1 was busy, but there were no hold ups and we made good time.  We made one brief stop at services on the way and were delighted to see that our arrival coincided with that of the Watford supporter coaches, so I said a brief hello to Don before we set off again.

Caught on camera before the game

We parked up in the city centre and headed to the usual pub to find that it was deserted, so we had our choice of tables.  The Boxing Day menu on offer was various varieties of chip butty (one with cheese) and a couple of pies.  Given that we would need something to eat on the journey home, we decided to keep our sandwiches for later and have one of their pies.  When our lunches arrived, it turned out to have been a great choice as the pie was a decent slice cut from a large homemade pie accompanied with chips, mushy peas and gravy.  There was a bottle of Henderson’s relish on the table which I declined to try, although I overheard some friends at another table being informed that not adding the relish to their meal was grounds for being thrown out of the pub.

The big question mark over team selection was whether the arrival of Troy Deeney’s new son on Christmas Day would mean that he was absent on paternity leave.  Thankfully, when the team came through, he was included, with Pearson having made only the one (enforced) change from the Man Utd game with Chalobah replacing the suspended Doucouré.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Chalobah, Capoue; Deulofeu, Hughes, Sarr; Deeney.

We arrived at the ground in plenty of time and I headed to the other end of the stand for a chat with Don.  While I was there, a lovely steward came around to make sure that all in the disabled area were OK.  We complained about the weather as it was grey and wet, but she pointed out with a smile that we were in the North now and it is always raining.

Hughes lines up a free kick

In preparation for kick-off, the flag wavers took to the pitch.  It has to be said that some of them looked rather small for the flags that they had been given and there was a struggle to keep them in the air.  Alice had just commented that it was 3 minutes to three and the players ought to be out on the pitch when the announcement was made that kick-off was to be delayed for 10 minutes for unspecified safety reasons.  This meant that those poor children with the oversized flags had another 10 minutes to wave them.  It seemed unnecessarily cruel but they were made of stern stuff.  It was probably at this time that we were caught on camera as we received photos from our nieces of us looking rather puzzled on their television screen.

Finally, we could see the players in the tunnel on the big screen and they took to the field.  Prior to kick-off, the first bars of “Annie’s Song” were played and the home crowd gave a moving rendition of “Greasy chip butty”.  A magnificent piece of music.

Chalobah congratulates Deulofeu on his goal

The home side started brightly with an early attack from Stevens who broke into the box before being stopped by a brilliant tackle from Kabasele.  The first attempt on goal came after 10 minutes with a snapshot from McBurnie that was met by a great save from Foster, the rebound dropped to McGoldrick but a tackle from Kabasele diverted the ball for a corner.  McBurnie had another chance from a throw-in but his header was gathered by Foster.  Watford’s first attack of note came as Femenía hit a cross-cum-shot towards Sarr, but the youngster was unable to connect and the ball was gathered by the Blades’ keeper, Henderson.  The home side had another decent chance as McGoldrick met a cross from Norwood with a side foot that flew over the bar, but the flag was up, so it wouldn’t have counted.  The home side had the ball in the net after Basham crossed for Fleck who turned it in from close range.  It looked as if Fleck took the shot knowing that the flag was up for offside and it appeared that the defenders had stopped playing, but the decision went to VAR and we were rather concerned, as the home crowd who were in line with the scorer had been angrily protesting the decision.  Thankfully, that was a partisan reaction and VAR confirmed that the goal would not stand.  In the stands I was rather enjoying a song to the tune of Last Christmas indicating that we were giving our hearts to Nigel Pearson (oh yes).  Watford took the lead in the 27th minute and the goal was a thing of beauty as a clearance from Foster was headed on by Chalobah into the path of Deulofeu who raced upfield and finished past Henderson to give the travelling Hornets the Christmas present that they had all been waiting for.  Sadly, the lead did not last long.  Hughes made what looked like a decent challenge on Baldock, but the United man went down in the box and the referee pointed to the spot.  The view of the challenge from our angle was such that it was a while before a number around me realised that a penalty had been given.  The decision was confirmed by VAR and Norwood stepped up to score the spot kick.  Into time added on and the Hornets had a chance to regain the lead, but Deulofeu’s free kick flew just over the bar.

Watford hero, Foster, takes a goal kick

It hadn’t been the most exciting half of football, but I had enjoyed our goal.

The half time entertainment was a children’s relay that was enlivened by the lads running towards our stand who set off on the whistle not realising that they were supposed to be on the second leg.  When they ran back and received the baton (football) one of them set off in the wrong direction.  At this point I decided to head for the concourse and found my way out of the row blocked by people transfixed by the action on the pitch who muttered angrily at my interrupting their viewing.

There was a change at the break for the Hornets.  Sarr had been down injured for some time towards the end of the first half after an argument with the advertising hoardings.  He was obviously injured, so I was really irritated when he was booed by the home fans as he tried to continue.  The management allowed him to finish the half, but he was unable to continue so was replaced with Pereyra.  I was not happy at this turn of events.  The first chance of the second half fell to the home side when a clearance from Hughes rebounded to Lundstram whose shot was over the target.

Troy discussing issues with the referee

Watford had made a poor start to the half and we did ourselves no favours when, from a throw, the ball was given away to the opposition, thankfully no harm was done as the shot from Fleck was terrible and flew wide of the target.  McGoldrick then had a good chance to put the home side in the lead but his shot rebounded off the post and the flag was up for offside anyway.  Watford then threatened as Deulofeu crossed for Deeney at the near post, but the ball was deflected for a corner.  The home side made their first substitution on 63 minutes replacing McBurnie with Mousset.  The substitute almost made an immediate impact with a cross for Fleck whose shot was stopped by a stunning save from Foster.  I am ashamed to say that, when they were raving about the save on 5Live on the way home, I struggled to recall it.  My notes state that the shot was straight at Foster and that he pushed it for a corner.  Sadly, it was one of those that looks tremendous when you are behind the goal but rather pedestrian from low down at the other end of the ground.  Either that or I need to replace my distance glasses.  The Hornets should have done better from a free kick when the delivery from Hughes bounced off a defender towards Cathcart, but the Ulsterman knew nothing about it and the ball hit his face and went out for a goal kick.  There was a much better chance at the other end for the Blades as a low shot from Stevens was met by Foster who turned it into the side netting.  Deulofeu was then booked for arguing with the referee, I think the ref was sick of him as he had been complaining all afternoon.

Watford subs Gray and Dawson

Again the Hornets should have made more of the opportunity when Pereyra did well to keep the ball after battling past a defender, his pass bounced off Deulofeu to Deeney who seemed surprised that the ball reached him, so could only manage a soft shot that was easy for the keeper, but the flag was up for offside anyway.  That was Troy’s last involvement in the game as he was replaced by Gray.  The Hornets won a free kick on the edge of the box when Pereyra went down dramatically after a challenge by O’Connell.  Deulofeu chipped the ball towards the goal, but his effort was just wide of the post.  The home side had a free kick of their own, which was a decent effort but was blocked at the far post.  From the corner, Egan headed goalwards but Mariappa was on the line and headed clear.  The final change for the Hornets came as Dawson replaced Chalobah, who was booked for time wasting as he dawdled from the field.  Gray had a great chance to break the deadlock as he broke into the United box but, after doing all the hard work, he couldn’t get the shot off and the ball ran out of play.  The fourth official indicated four minutes of added time and we were counting the seconds.  Watford created a couple of chances in injury time.  First from a free kick in a dangerous area, but the delivery from Hughes was poor and missed the target.  Then Pereyra fed Gray who tried an audacious back heel that was easily gathered by Henderson.  The final whistle went to sighs of relief in the away end as we had been under the cosh for most of the second half.

Chalobah, Deulofeu and Pereyra talk tactics before a free-kick

It has to be said that this was a less enjoyable game than those against Liverpool and Manchester United, but it had been a battling performance and, despite the disappointment of conceding a dodgy penalty, we were happy to go home with a point.  Earlier in the season we would have collapsed after conceding the penalty.  This time we hung on bravely, although we lost a lot of our attacking threat when Sarr went off.  Sheffield United are flying high in the division for a reason, they are very well organised and play as a team and a draw at their place was very pleasing indeed.

On the way back to the car, we met a friendly United fan who gave us directions out of town.  I must admit that I much prefer games against teams like this when the opposition fans are passionate locals rather than tourists in brand new shirts and scarves who are only there to tick a box.  The marketing of the Premier League has certainly been to the detriment of the match-going experience.

The drive home in the rain was greatly improved by listening to our own Emma Saunders on 5Live while finally enjoying the turkey sandwiches.

We finished the day off the foot of the table, which was very pleasing and, while there is still some way to go, our prospects look a lot more positive than they did a month ago and that makes me very happy indeed.

 

A Surprisingly Fun Visit to Liverpool

Nigel Pearson and Craig Shakespeare in the Watford dug-out

This was to be Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge, and I have to say that I had enjoyed reading social media during the week.  Pearson is clearly well liked by his colleagues and former players and the comments from Leicester fans showed that he is held in very high esteem in those parts.  As if that wasn’t enough, I must admit to cheering when Craig Shakespeare was confirmed as Assistant Head Coach.

As one of my oldest and dearest friends lives on Merseyside, I travelled up on Friday afternoon to spend the evening with them.  But the early kick-off meant an early start from theirs and it did not bode well for the afternoon when I found myself caught in a hailstorm on the way to the station to catch the train into the city.

Despite information indicating that the pub wouldn’t be open until 11, the doors had opened before my arrival and there were already some familiar faces inside.  Our party gathered, but a delayed flight from Amsterdam and delayed trains at Milton Keynes meant that two of our usual group were not going to make kick-off.  After a swift pint or two, we headed to the ground.

Mapps, Sarr, Doucoure (and Mane) in the sleet

The buses to Anfield had returned to the stop opposite Doctor Duncan’s and it was noted that there had been long queues there since about 10:30.  We left the pub at a reasonable time but the length of the queue meant that, by the time we reached the front, the steward was telling us that we were on the last bus and it was already leaving later than planned (12:10).  Having estimated that the bus would take 20 minutes to get to Anfield, I was getting rather tense at the late departure and Pete, sitting next to me, was becoming very apologetic about having had a second pint.

Team news for Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge was that he had made two changes from the Palace game with Mariappa and Hughes coming in for Masina and Pereyra, who were both out with injuries.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Doucouré; Deulofeu, Hughes, Sarr; Deeney.  There had been rumours in the pub that, due to the two midweek games that Liverpool were facing, they would play a much weakened team, possibly packed with youth players.  When the Liverpool team came through, that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I started to feel very nervous indeed.

The bus arrived at the ground with 10 minutes to spare and, to my great relief, I found myself in the stand just as the game kicked off.

Ben Foster launches a free kick

Our seats were located quite high up in a corner of the ground.  The sun was very low over the opposite stand and, with a lot of tall people in front of me, I could see little of what was going on and absolutely nothing at our end of the ground.  So, I was aware that there had been some early possession from the home side, but hadn’t seen any action (or heard any reaction from the crowd) that suggested anything resembling a goal chance.  On 6 minutes, Sarr broke forward and played a lovely ball across the Liverpool box, but nobody was there to turn the ball in.  Quite early on there was a chant from around us of “How sh*t must you be, it’s only 0-0.”  My heart sank until I heard someone shout that it was a terrible song and we should be positive.  Another voice spoke up in support of that view and my faith in our travelling support was restored.  Goal chances were few and far between until a little flurry at the midpoint of the half.  First for the home side when Henderson broke into the box and shot over the bar.  Then Hughes won the ball in the midfield, advanced and shot just wide of the target.  The first caution of the game went to Hughes who was booked for a foul on Henderson.  There was little excitement on the pitch but, over the tannoy, we were told to ‘stand by for Operation Anfield exercise’ and the tension in the air was palpable.  But the exercise came and went and we were none the wiser.

Hughes and Deulofeu line up a free kick as Kiko looks on

The home side had a shout for a penalty when Mané found Salah in the box and the Egyptian took a tumble, but the referee waved play on.  Watford then had a half chance when Deeney headed the ball down to Doucouré, but Van Dijk was on hand to make the clearance.  The home side had a chance from a corner, but Alexander-Arnold’s delivery was easily claimed by Foster.  With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Watford should have taken the lead as Capoue played the ball back for Doucouré who miskicked horribly so failed to get a shot in when it looked easier to score.  To add insult to injury, the corner from Deulofeu was poor which allowed Mané to claim the ball and escape upfield before finding Salah whose shot curled past Foster.  At this point, bizarrely, there was a mass exodus from the home stand to our right.  There were still 8 minutes to go to half-time, but the lure of the concessions clearly trumped watching the match.  Watford had a gilt-edged chance to break back before half time when a shot from Deulofeu was saved by Allison, but he pushed it straight to Sarr in the box.  Unfortunately, the youngster’s mishit was even worse than Doucoure’s.  Henderson was the next to go into the referee’s book after pulling Deulofeu back.  Liverpool had a great chance to grab a second when Mané broke into the box, but Kabasele made a superb save to stop him.  So, the half finished with the Hornets a goal down, but it has to be said that we were very unlucky to be behind.

Andre Gray somewhat outnumbered

Watford had the first chance of the second half as Sarr broke into the Liverpool box, but Allison was able to make the save.  At the other end a shot from Salah was blocked by Kabasele.  Liverpool thought they had scored a second goal when Mané headed home, but the VAR decision was that the goal would not stand.  There was no explanation in the ground of why the goal had been disallowed, but it seemed the forward was deemed to be offside.  Deulofeu had a great chance to draw the Hornets level when he found himself with only Allison to beat, but the keeper was able to block the shot.  Sarr had been tormenting the opposition all afternoon and the next player to fall victim was Milner who was booked for tripping him up.   Liverpool were forced to make a substitution due to an injury to Wijnaldum who was replaced by Robertson.  The Hornets had a great chance to draw level as Capoue played a lovely ball over the top for Deeney, but the Watford captain could not apply the finishing touch.  Then Sarr broke into the area and was sent tumbling by Van Dijk, but the referee was unimpressed.  At the other end, Firmino hit a low shot, but Foster was down to make the save.  Another chance came and went for the home side as Salah broke into the box, but Kabasele was in close attendance and able to turn the ball back to Foster.  Then Salah found Firmino in the box, but it came to nothing as Foster was out to make the save.  With 20 minutes to go, Klopp made a second substitution replacing Shaqiri with Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The wonderful Hughes lines up a free kick

The home side threatened again when a cross found Firmino, but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Foster.  Pearson then made his first substitution replacing Deeney with Gray.  The Watford defence were in action again as a cross from Chamberlain was repelled by the head of Mariappa.  At the other end, another promising move came to nothing when Gray tried to release Sarr, but the touch was heavy and Gomez was able to clear.  A decent pass from Gray went begging as Doucouré hadn’t read the ball, but the Liverpool defence were asleep and, in panic, Van Dijk almost turned the ball into his own net but, instead, it went out for a corner.  On this occasion, Deulofeu’s delivery was decent but he could only hit the post.  Watford were fighting to get back on terms and should have done better when a free kick from Hughes was cleared to Sarr, but the shot was well wide of the target.  Then Sarr played the ball back to Doucouré whose shot was dreadful and cleared the bar.  That was Abdoulaye’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Quina.  At the same time Origi came on for Firmino for the home side.  The Liverpool fans were heading for the exits, so a good number of them will have missed the second goal and it was a disappointing one to concede as the Hornets failed to clear a ball into the box and Salah flicked home.  There was a final chance for Liverpool to extend their lead as Mané broke into the box, but he shot straight at Foster.

The magnificent Christian Kabasele

The final whistle went to cheers from all sides of the ground.  While the travelling Hornets enthusiastically applauded the players, I was very pleased to see Pearson telling his players to go over and applaud the fans.

It is strange to feel so positive after a defeat, but the performance had been very encouraging and we felt very unlucky to have lost.  Given the relative positions of the two teams at each end of the table, this game was much closer than it should have been and, but for the terrible finishing from the Hornets, this could have been an upset.

Sarr was a joy to watch.  He is now showing us why Gino Pozzo paid a club record fee for him.  The Liverpool defence were clearly scared of him as evidenced by the balls being thumped into the stands.  Hughes and Kabasele were also magnificent, their reputations are growing with each game.

The game coincided with a gig from one of my favourite artists, Ian Prowse, who, with his band Amsterdam, was playing his traditional Christmas gig in his hometown.  A number of us had bought tickets in the hope that this would give us some enjoyment from the day.  The early kick-off meant that we had a long time to kill between the game and the gig and this was spent on a crawl of some of the most attractive pubs in Liverpool.  During this, Mike continued to wear his Watford top and was approached by many locals (reds, blues and whites), all of whom congratulated us on our performance, with the Liverpool fans saying how much we had scared them.  It is always good to hear such a positive reaction from opposition fans.  Despite being bottom of the table, the hope has returned.

P.S.  The gig was magnificent and Ian Prowse now has a number of new fans among the travelling Hornets.

 

Rainbows on a Happier Day at the Vic

Hayden Mullins

My journey to Watford took slightly longer than usual as I hadn’t factored in the strike timetable on the final leg of the journey.  As we arrived at the Junction, a Palace fan tried to engage a fella in front of me regarding our prospects for the game.  I responded that I wasn’t expecting anything, he countered that we always beat them.  We concluded that we would both be happy with a point and went our separate ways wishing each other well.

After that surprisingly pleasant encounter I headed for the West Herts and arrived just before Don left for the ground.  It being the 10th anniversary of that amazing goal, glasses were raised with the toast “Happy Doyley Day.”  Needless to say, there was also a lot of discussion about our new head coach.  I have to say that I am happy with the appointment and the consensus of our group was that Pearson is just what we need at the moment.  He did great things at Leicester and was credited with building the team that won the Premier League.  He will also take no nonsense and we certainly need that attitude.  As we watched Duncan Ferguson’s Everton beat Chelsea and recoiled in terror every time the camera gave a close up of big Dunc, I could only hope that Nigel would have the same effect at Watford.

Kiko Femenia leaving Zaha for a moment to take a throw-in

As it was Watford’s “Rainbow Laces” match, there was a rainbow carpet welcoming all to the Hornet shop and there were Premier League representatives handing out laces to passing fans.  I took some and just need to find a pair of boots with which to wear them.

Due to the late appointment of Pearson, Hayden Mullins was in charge again, facing his former club.  Team news was that he had made two changes from the Leicester game with Kabasele and Pereyra coming in for Mariappa and Hughes.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Capoue, Doucouré; Pereyra, Deulofeu, Sarr; Deeney.  In the opposition dug out was our old friend and hero Ray Lewington.  I love to see him back at Vicarage Road.

I was not in the ground in time to see Pearson introduced to the crowd, but I was there when Emma asked us to thank Hayden Mullins for his stewardship while we were between managers.  He was rewarded with very warm applause from the crowd and responded in kind.

Capoue on the ball

There was a great early chance for the Hornets as Sarr turned and broke forward before playing in Femenía who crossed for Deeney who was unable to make a decent contact.  At the other end, the visitors threatened but Ayew’s cross was hit straight to Foster.  The Hornets gifted the visitors with a great chance to take the lead when a mishit clearance reached McArthur who should have done better but, thankfully, shot wide of the far post.  The home side then had a great chance of their own as Femenía put a lovely cross in for Sarr, who tried to turn the ball in at the near post, but it was blocked for a corner.  Sarr again executed a lovely turn and run but, on this occasion, his cross was headed to safety.  The Hornets won a free kick in a dangerous position on the edge of the Palace box, but Pereyra’s delivery was straight at the wall.  The first booking of the game went to Doucouré, who stuck a leg out to bring Ayew down.  Off the field, there were complaints of bullying in the Rookery as Trevor, who sits in front of us and is a QPR fan (his wife is Watford), objected to the number of people wishing him “Happy Doyley Day”!  Kabasele and Zaha tangled, there was some afters and the Palace man was penalised and booked, much to the amusement of the Watford faithful.  There was then the ridiculous sight of Cathcart being shown a yellow card for a pass because Milivojevic had challenged him as he kicked the ball and had fallen over Cathcart’s feet.  The first half ended with a lovely move from the Hornets that finished with Deulofeu playing a square ball to Sarr who shot well over the target.

So, we reached the break with the game goalless and without a shot on target, but it had been a very positive half of football from the Hornets.

Deulofeu takes a corner

At half time, representatives from the Proud Hornets and Proud and Palace were interviewed about their groups’ efforts to ensure that LGBT+ supporters feel welcome at football matches.  The Hornets representative was particularly enthusiastic about the rainbow display in the Rookery at this time last year that they worked on with the 1881.  It was very impressive and a really positive gesture towards inclusivity.

The visitors made a change at the break bringing Riedewald on for Schlupp.  The Hornets had two goal chances in the first couple of minutes of the second half.  First a free kick from Deulofeu was met by the head of Doucouré, but the header was an easy save for Guaita in the Palace goal.  Then Pereyra played in Deulofeu but, again, the shot was straight at the Palace keeper.  The next chance fell to Capoue, but his shot from outside the area was high and wide.  Deulofeu looked as though he would open the scoring as he escaped from the Palace defence, but his shot was just wide of the near post.  My heart was in my mouth when Masina and Zaha tangled in the box, but it was the Palace man that was adjudged to have been the aggressor.  At this point the Palace fans were expressing their ire regarding the referee, the Watford faithful responded with “This referee’s all right!”.

Pereyra, Deulofeu and Masina line up a free kick

Watford threatened again as Deulofeu played a short corner to Pereyra who played a return pass, but the curling effort from Geri was easy for Guaita.  At the other end, Zaha found McArthur whose shot was well over the target.  A promising run by Deulofeu was stopped by a foul from Tomkins that earned a yellow card.  Palace then made their second substitution bringing Benteke on for Townsend.  A lovely ball into the Palace box from Deulofeu appeared to be heading for the near post but Guaita was lurking and Sarr just failed to turn it in at close range.  Into the final 15 minutes of the game and Mullins made two substitutions in quick succession with Gray and Chalobah replacing Pereyra and Doucouré.  Between the substitutions, McArthur made a foray into the Watford box but was stopped by a great tackle from Kabasele.  The visitors then had their best chance of the game with a powerful shot from Ayew that just cleared the bar.  Watford were still fighting to make the breakthrough and Sarr played a cross to Deulofeu which was a little too deep so narrowed the angle for Geri who crossed back for Ismaïla, who could only head wide under a challenge from Cahill.  The final substitution for Palace saw Kouyaté replaced by McCarthy.

Femenia, Doucoure and Sarr

Sarr had yet another chance to open the scoring, but his shot was turned wide by Cahill.  A corner was then played back in by Cathcart to Sarr but the shot was high and wide.  The game was getting rather tetchy and Femenía was the next to go into the referee’s book after hauling Zaha down.  From the free kick, Watford cleared and launched a counter-attack as Sarr powered downfield before crossing for Gray who was coming into the box at speed and could only shoot straight at Guaita.  There were shouts for a penalty when Deeney was pulled over by Cahill as he tried to reach a cross into the box by Masina.  The referee waved play on but, soon after, Deeney was awarded a free kick for a much more innocuous foul on the wing and was clearly asking the referee why that was an infringement when the one in the box wasn’t.  He appeared dissatisfied with the explanation.  There had been an ongoing niggle between Capoue and Zaha and the Watford man was finally cautioned for a push on his opponent to stop him escaping.  It was a very “Capoue” foul.  Watford had a final chance to grab the winner as a shot from Deeney was caught by Guaita while Sarr challenged.  The youngster went down in the incident and was lying on the goalline.  Gray and Deeney told him in no uncertain terms to get on with the game and Troy dragged him to his feet with a force that could have dislocated his shoulder!!  That was the last chance of the game which remained goalless despite the efforts of the Hornets.

Graham Stack congratulating Ben Foster at the end of the game

The game finished with some unresolved handbags.  Zaha was still arguing about how hard done by he had been as Chalobah put an arm around him and accompanied him off.

Back to the West Herts and the smiles were back on our faces.  That had been a much better performance from the Hornets who looked like a cohesive team and worked very hard.  The defence had been well-organised and the much maligned Femenía had put in an excellent performance keeping Zaha very quiet and contributing to his frustration.  Sarr had again put in a great performance and is finally showing us what he can do.  It was also pleasing to see Deulofeu put in a considerably better showing than he had in midweek.  It is great to see Deeney back, his leadership makes such a difference to the team even if he isn’t scoring.  All in all, it had been an enjoyable afternoon at the Vic and we haven’t had many of those this season.

So, while we are still at the foot of the table, I find myself feeling much more positive about our prospects for the rest of the season, even if the next two games are unlikely to be a lot of fun.

No Points, but Some Positive Signs

A nice welcome from our hosts

I worked at home in the morning before heading into London to catch the train to Leicester.  There had been problems on the line earlier on, so my arrival was slightly delayed, but I was still in the hotel in time to call in to my last meeting of the day and was in the pub before 5:30.  Our party was severely depleted with only Pete and I making the journey.  The pub was also pleasantly empty so we were able to have a couple of drinks (I moved on to wine from the beer) and something to eat in relative comfort.  As we headed to the ground, I began to question whether the game was going ahead as when we reached within 5 minutes of the stadium, there were no other football supporters to be seen.  As we got slightly closer, the other fans appeared.

In the past, I have had some very unpleasant experiences with Leicester stewards, but I have to say that the woman who performed the search at the turnstile was very friendly and pleasant.  Once inside, I decided to try to go and see Don in the disabled area.  This was a somewhat risky endeavour as a previous request to a steward to do this a few years ago was met with the response that I would be arrested if I stepped on to the perimeter around the ground.  At the time, I was with a friend who is a serving Police officer who was more patient than I would have been with the steward in question.  The woman that I spoke to on this occasion was much nicer and let me through.  I hadn’t realised when I made the request that the disabled fans were located in with the Leicester crowd.  I wasn’t wearing colours at the time, but still restricted myself to a quick hello, before making a rapid retreat.  How awful for the disabled fans.

The rainbow laces arch

With the departure of Flores, U23 coach, Hayden Mullins, was in charge of the first team for this match.  Team news was that he had made just the one change from the defeat to Southampton with Deeney returning to the starting line-up in place of Holebas, who had picked up an injury.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Mariappa, Cathcart, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue, Doucouré, Sarr, Deulofeu; Deeney.

It was lovely to see Troy leading the team out, it has been far too long.  The Premier League arch (or whatever it is) was coloured in keeping with the fact that this was the rainbow laces game, a stand against homophobia in football.  Although, given the silly boots that the players wear these days, rainbow laces seem terribly outdated.  Or am I overthinking this?  The other thing that caught my eye before kick-off was Femenía changing into a long-sleeved shirt.   Roy Clare would never have stood for that.

Ben Foster takes a free kick

The home side had an early attack as Vardy broke forward and cut the ball back for Pérez whose shot was over the target, but the flag was up anyway.  The Watford fans were on form with an early chant of “Brendan Rodgers, he’ll walk out on you.”  There was a very promising attack from the Hornets as Sarr raced forward with Deulofeu alongside him, he played in the Spaniard who got the ball tangled up in his feet before running in to a defender and the ball went out for a corner that came to nothing.  At the other end Barnes exchanged passes with Maddison before shooting from a tight angle, from where he could only find the side netting.  A nice move from the Hornets finished with Sarr finding Deeney just outside the box, but the shot was blocked.  Leicester threatened again when Barnes broke into the box, but Foster was able to block the shot.  On 38 minutes, the home side appealed for a penalty as Vardy went down in the box.  The referee was having none of it and booked the Leicester man for simulation.  However, in the VAR era, that means nothing, so we had to wait while the VAR check was done which confirmed the on-pitch decision, although those watching the live stream were not convinced.  A promising break by Sarr stopped when he was taken down by Söyüncü who was booked for the foul.  Deulofeu took the free kick which flew wide of the far post.  Watford should have taken the lead just before half time when Deulofeu played the ball back to Hughes, who was in an acre of space, but his shot flew wide of the target.  We were baffled when a goal kick was awarded as the shot must surely have taken a deflection.  Sadly, it transpired that the deflection was off Deeney.  The home side also had a great chance just before half time, but Vardy was unable to get the ball under control and Cathcart was able to usher the ball back to Foster.  So, we reached half time with the game goalless and somewhat lacking in incident.

Deeney and Sarr in the Leicester box

Leicester made a substitution at the break bringing Praet on for Pérez.  The home side won an early free kick when Söyüncü was tripped by Doucouré, who was booked for his trouble.  The delivery dropped to Söyüncü whose shot was over the bar.  Barnes broke into the box, but Foster dropped to block the shot.  Leicester won a penalty in the 53rd minute as Masina fouled Evans.  The arguments from the Watford players were impassioned and protracted, but VAR upheld the decision and Vardy beat Foster to give the Foxes the lead.  The Hornets were almost in more trouble as the ball reached Fuchs in a dangerous position, but Cathcart was able to intervene and turn the shot wide of the target.   Leicester threatened again as Vardy crossed the ball in for Barnes, but Masina did well to put it out for a corner.   Watford tried to hit back as Sarr broke and crossed from a dangerous position, but the cross wasn’t high enough and was headed clear by Söyüncü.  Leicester made a second substitution replacing Tielemans with Choudhury.  Watford won a corner and Hughes stepped up to take it.  He played it short to Deulofeu who returned the ball, Will crossed for Cathcart who flicked the ball goalwards, but it was an easy catch for Schmeichel.  Mullins made his first substitution replacing Deulofeu with Success. Then Justin came on for Barnes and was greeted with chants of “scum” from those that pay more attention to these things than I do.  Surely he should have been lauded for escaping Luton.  Watford made two late changes with Quina replacing Hughes and Gray on for Deeney, who had managed 87 minutes.  There was five minutes of stoppage time during which the Hornets finally had their first shot on target with a shot from Quina from outside the area that was an easy catch for Schmeichel.  But it was the home side who grabbed a late goal as Maddison broke forward and beat Mariappa before shooting past Foster.  It was a cruel end to the game.  I felt very sorry for Don and my other friends in the disabled enclosure as they were surrounded by cheering Leicester fans.  But, after the negativity in the crowd on Saturday, fair play to the travelliing Hornets who were singing “Watford til I die” and “I love you, Watford, I do” at the tops of their voices.

Mariappa, Deeney and Cathcart

At the final whistle, there was a decent away crowd left in the ground and, despite the result, they warmly applauded the players off the pitch.

Pete had made a quick getaway in order to catch the last train home, so I was left alone for the post-match analysis.  I have to say that I felt a lot happier than I did on Saturday.  It had been a much more positive performance overall both on the pitch and in the stands.  I was particularly pleased to see the players still fighting for an equaliser in time added on at the end of the game.  Sarr was a joy to watch, his speed was clearly worrying the Leicester defenders who were resorting to lumping the ball into row Z.  At the back, Masina was very impressive and was unlucky to give away the penalty.  It was also great to see Troy back.  He didn’t do a lot, but his presence gives the team a lift.  So, all in all, there was much to like in a performance against a very good team.  Maybe I shouldn’t write off this season just yet.

Quique’s Last Stand (Again)

Sarr and Doucoure waiting for a ball into the box

A 5:30pm kick-off in Southampton meant a later than usual departure from home.  The train journey, while easy enough, did require four changes in order to get to the pre-match pub.  The penultimate leg was subject to delays due to problems at Clapham Junction, so I spent more time than was desirable sitting in the cold on Basingstoke station and, on boarding the train to Southampton, it was clear from the animated conversations and the cans of Fosters that I was now on  a “football special”.  I met up with the rest of our travelling party at Southampton Airport Parkway and, having missed the hourly connection to St Denys, we piled into a taxi.

As we entered the pub of choice, there was a large group of Watford regulars gathered at the bar.  After greeting them, we headed for a table at the back.  The pub had a decent menu, so I was rather disappointed that, on a matchday, they only offered hot dogs, burgers, chips and peas.  I have to say that my disappointment was misplaced as the hot dog was excellent and it was served with proper chips, so we left for the game replete and ready for whatever the evening would bring.

Our route to the ground took us on a path alongside the River Itchen.  We have definitely been to evening games here in the past, but clearly not in the Winter as the path was incredibly dark.  Still, we soon emerged and saw the lights of the stadium.

Deulofeu looking animated at a corner, Holebas taking it in his stride

Our seats were at the back of the stand where we met up with Amelia, who had turned down the opportunity for a pre-match pint with her aunt.  As I got my breath back, I was a little concerned when the floodlights dimmed.  When it happened again, I realised that it was in time to the music and we were caught up in a stadium disco light show.  I found it rather off-putting and can only hope that there were no epileptics in the crowd.

Team news was that Quique had made two changes from the defeat to Burnley with Masina and Sarr coming in for Dawson and Gray.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Mariappa; Holebas, Doucouré, Capoue, Femenía; Hughes; Sarr, Deulofeu.  There were some concerns about Quique persisting with a back three, given our paucity of fit central defenders.  In a similar vein it was noted that we had only Foulquier on the bench, should one of the starting defenders succumb to injury.

 

A blurred but happy celebration of Sarr’s goal

The Hornets had a great chance to take an early lead as Højbjerg gave away possession to Sarr, but the youngster took his chance too early and shot straight at McCarthy in the Southampton goal.  The Saints’ Captain had an immediate chance to make up for his mistake when the ball dropped to him outside the Watford box, but his shot flew over the bar.  The home side threatened again as Redmond played a one-two with Ings before shooting from distance, but it was an easy catch for Foster.  At this point, very early in the game, the chants ringing out from the away end were, “You’re going down with the Watford”, “We’ll see you in the Championship” and “We only lost 8-0.”  Quite how that was supposed to spur the Watford players on to victory is beyond me.  On the pitch, a short corner was played to Holebas who put in a cross that was met with a defensive header that dropped to Capoue, he crossed back for Doucouré whose header was weak and easily saved by McCarthy.  The Hornets took the lead in the 24th minute, a lovely ball from Capoue released Sarr who advanced and shot across McCarthy into the net.  It was a terrific goal and prompted wild celebrations and lots of hugs in the away end.  I felt massively relieved, hoping that the goal would calm the nerves and set us up nicely.  Sarr was soon in action at the other end of the field repelling a ball into the box with a strong defensive header.  That’s what I like to see.  He had a chance to double Watford’s lead on the half hour as a deep free kick from Holebas found him in space, he volleyed goalwards, but McCarthy made the block and the ball went out for a corner.  The Hornets had another chance soon after, as Deulofeu broke forward and unleashed a shot that was pushed wide by McCarthy.  At the other end a low cross from Bertrand was blocked by Mariappa.  The home side threatened again as Redmond tried a shot from just inside the area, but his effort was over the target.  The Saints had a great chance to grab an equaliser just before half time when a low cross from Soares was flicked towards goal by Ward-Prowse, but the ball drifted just wide of the target.  The half time whistle was greeted with boos from the home fans, while the travelling Hornets were pretty happy with the state of play.

Doucoure, Cathcart and Masina getting ready to defend a cross into the box

The first action of the second half was a foul by Redmond on Femenía that earned the Southampton man a booking.  Ten minutes into the half Sarr beat a couple of defenders and unleashed a shot from distance which was just over the bar.  Just before the hour mark Southampton made a double substitution with Redmond and Obefami making way for Boufal and Long.  I was glad to see the back of Redmond, who always does well against us, not so glad to see Long coming on.  There was some concern among the away fans when Capoue was knocked to the ground after blocking a shot from Ward-Prowse with his face.  He was initially flat out with his arms outstretched but, once he got his breath back, he was able to continue the game.  Southampton threatened as Djenepo broke forward and crossed for Long who was unable to connect, so the chance went begging.  The Hornets nearly engineered their own downfall as Foster held on to the ball for too long in the box, tried to beat Ings with a Cruyff turn, then both men fell to the ground, I was sure that the referee would point to the spot, so was massively relieved when the outcome was a free-kick.  Needless to say, the relief didn’t kick in immediately as I waited for an intervention from VAR that, thankfully, never came.  With 25 minutes to go, Flores made his first substitution replacing Deulofeu, who had been ineffective, with Gray.  Southampton had their best chance of the game when Boufal cut the ball back to Long (of course) whose shot was stopped by a wonderful save from Foster who tipped the ball onto the bar.  It looked as though Ben’s efforts would be in vain as the big screen indicated that VAR was checking for a penalty for an earlier incident, but the decision was that there was no penalty.  Watford should have scored a second with twenty minutes to go when Gray played a lovely ball back for Sarr who missed the connection and the ball was put out for a corner by Bertrand.  With 15 minutes remaining Quique made a second substitution bringing Chalobah on to replace Hughes who, again, had to leave the field on the opposite side to the dug-out and was given a huge ovation as he walked past the travelling Hornets.

Chalobah back in action

Watford threatened again as Gray ran around the back of the defence and tried to sneak the ball into the net but, instead, hit it straight to the keeper.  Southampton then made their final substitution bringing Valery on in place of Soares.  Southampton should have drawn level when a shot from Ings, that appeared to be going wide, so Foster left it, reached Long who flicked it goalwards but, thankfully, Cathcart was on the line to make the block.  Sadly, Watford’s lead didn’t last much longer as Djenepo advanced and nipped around the back of the defence, as Gray had earlier, but his shot went under Foster and reached Ings who turned it in at close range.  Television pictures showed that Djenepo had used his hand in the build-up (quite an outrageous scoop, if truth be told), but I am not going to complain about VAR in this situation as the goal was a result of poor defending from the Hornets and it felt like it had been coming.  Sadly, at this stage, the confidence drained from both the team and the crowd and none of us believed that we would get anything out of the game.  With less than 10 minutes to go, Flores was lining up his final substitute and my heart sank when I realised that Foulquier was the answer.  To be fair, he was the only defender on the bench and Femenía had picked up an injury, but this was the last straw for a lot of the travelling Watford fans who greeted the decision with loud boos and chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing”.  Prior to the substitution, Capoue had fouled Højbjerg on the edge of the box.  There seemed to be some confusion in the setting up of the wall, or at least the bloke behind me was unhappy with the way that the defenders were lining up.  His concerns proved justified when Ward-Prowse stepped up and curled the free kick over the wall, Foster managed to get his hands to the ball, but could only help it into the net.  At this point, while the home fans celebrated, the travelling Hornets were telling Quique that he would be sacked in the morning.  When the fourth official held up the board indicating that there would be 6 minutes of added time, my only thought was that it was plenty of time for Southampton to get a third.  The Hornets did create a couple of chances in time added on.  First, from a corner, Sarr played the ball back to Gray but he shot wide of the target.  Then one final chance when Foulquier played the ball out to Sarr who took a shot that was pushed over the bar by McCarthy.

Foster up for a late corner

The final whistle went to celebrations among the home fans and total deflation in the away end.  I did have to admire the decency of those among our fans who applauded the players.  My applause was sporadic and half-hearted until Troy came over to thank the crowd.

There was no time for a post-match analysis as I made a swift departure in order to catch the train that would allow me to arrive back in Windsor before 10pm.  Travelling back home on my own, I had plenty of time to think about the game.  Yet again, following a decent first half, the second period had been disappointing, and we had lost to a very poor team.  Once we took the lead, we should have been in control of the game but we didn’t get a second goal and, such is the fragility of the squad’s confidence, once Southampton drew level, we never looked like getting anything from the game.  I always thought that the reappointment of Quique had been an odd move.  While he had a reputation for making us hard to beat early in his first tenure, the final third of the season was a dreadful trudge and that is what we are seeing now.  Despite the injuries, we have enough quality in this squad to be winning more games than we lose.  The fact that we are not has to be down to the coach.  By Sunday morning Quique was gone and I cannot imagine that there were any Watford fans who were saddened by that news.

Gino Pozzo slumming it

Sunday afternoon, at my Dad’s house, it was clear that someone needed to get hold of me.  When I finally answered the call from the private number that I was trying to ignore, I discovered it was someone from FiveLive who wanted to talk about the sacking of Flores.  I told him that I thought it had been an odd appointment in the first place.  He then asked what I thought of the owners.  I had mentioned that I was previously the Press Officer for the Watford Supporters Trust (hence why they had my number) and I assume that he was expecting me to criticise the Pozzos.  But, having been rather too close to the club when we went through those troubled times under the previous owners, I am still incredibly thankful for what the Pozzos have done for our club.  We have a stadium to be proud of with stands named for legends from another era, a team of players of a quality that we have no right to expect and a club that, with ventures like the sensory room and the work of Dave Messenger in connecting with the fans, still feels like a community club off the pitch and not a “foreign-owned Premier League business”.  For that I would still fall on my knees in worship in front of Gino Pozzo.