This is one of the easiest of away trips for me and, for once, the bizarre weekend schedules of South Western Railway did not cause me any problems. They had even cleared the tree that had meant a trip from Clapham Junction to Windsor on Saturday evening required a detour via Paddington. So, after a pleasant train journey to Putney and a walk through some dodgy looking areas of Fulham, I found myself in Parsons Green to meet friends for Sunday lunch. Lots of talk of what we had been up to since we last met. Mike and I had seen Maggie Smith in “A German Life”, which was superb. Graham had been to the Don McCullin exhibition and was still a bit shell shocked from it. I had missed City Orns to see The Unthanks, so was updated on the gathering that I had missed while enjoying an evening of Northumbrian folk music. Our peace was briefly shattered when the Norfolk/East Anglian Horns turned up to say “Hello”. Glenn told us that, as it was the last away game of the season, he had started his trip with champagne and strawberries. Our friends from Norfolk know how to travel in style. A Chelsea fan appeared and wished us luck in the Cup Final. The Sunday roasts were absolutely delicious, and we were enjoying our lunch so much that we almost forgot that there was a match to go to. Almost …
We left plenty of time for our walk to Stamford Bridge and to negotiate our way past the multiple phalanxes of security guards. There was a surprise in store as we were greeted by a voice announcing, “FA Cup Finalists to the left.” I was still smiling when I heard another directing us on “The road to Wembley.” A rather lovely and unexpected welcome which meant that my opinion of Chelsea went up massively.
Team news was that Gracia had made two changes with the welcome return of Deeney in place of Gray and a rare start for Chalobah deputising for the injured Capoue. So, the starting line-up was Foster; Holebas, Mariappa, Cathcart, Femenía; Pereyra, Chalobah, Doucouré, Hughes; Deulofeu, Deeney. The choice of Chalobah over Cleverley, who was on the bench, was an interesting one. Our hope was that Nate’s return to Chelsea would give him an extra incentive to impress. It was pleasing to see that he was given a warm welcome back by the Chelsea fans.
As we took our seats, Alice produced her flag. Designed by the 1881, in an homage to our previous cup final, it bore the legend “Hot cross Barnes Holebas.” Just wonderful.
The game kicked off and there was a great early chance for the Hornets as Deulofeu turned and hit a shot that was just wide of the target. Watford should have taken the lead on 8 minutes when, from a short corner, Holebas crossed for Deeney whose header was heading for the top corner until Kepa somehow got a hand to it and kept it out, the ball dropped to Hughes whose shot was well over the bar. Sarri was forced into an early change as Kanté picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Loftus-Cheek. Chelsea had their first shot in the 14th minute, a chip from Jorginho that was blocked by Foster. The home side threatened again as Higuaín broke into the box but was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Mariappa. Watford created another decent chance as Hughes laid the ball off to Deulofeu, but the shot was wide of the target. The next chance for the Hornets came as a lovely passing move finished with Holebas shooting over the bar. Chelsea had a half chance as the ball was dinked to Hazard in the box, Foster appeared to hesitate, but recovered and was able to gather the ball. Then Pereyra and Deeney combined to get the ball to Doucouré in shooting position, but his shot flew wide of the target. There was a shout for a penalty as Femenía tussled with Luiz in the box. From our angle, it looked as though the Chelsea man was playing for the foul, the referee was equally unimpressed and waved play on. Another chance for the home side came as Hazard took the ball off Doucouré before playing in Pedro, whose shot curled over the target. There was some frustration in the away end as the ball was passed from Doucouré to Deeney to Pereyra, all of whom could have taken a shot, but none did, and the chance was gone. At the other end, Pedro played a one-two with Higuaín before taking a shot that was just wide of the target. Another opportunity went begging after some good work from Pereyra who slipped in the build-up, but recovered to put in a decent cross, sadly there was no Watford player on hand to take advantage. The half time whistle went to boos from the Chelsea fans and cheers from the travelling Hornets who had seen their team completely dominate the half, playing some exquisite football, but failing to make the most of their chances. When have we heard that before this season?
All our good work was undone in the first five minutes of the second half. Hazard tried a shot from an acute angle that Foster pushed around the post for a corner. From the corner Hazard crossed and Loftus-Cheek beat Chalobah to open the scoring. Two minutes later, the home side were two up as, from another corner, Luiz came around the blind side of Mariappa and headed home. It was the Manchester City away game all over again. The Hornets tried to hit back as Deeney found Deulofeu just outside the box, he took his time to pick his shot before firing just wide of the far post. Pereyra played a lovely through ball to Deulofeu whose shot was weak and easily dealt with by Kepa. We then had the interesting sight of a fired-up Holebas (what other kind is there), tackling Pereyra before snapping into a set of challenges. Even when we are losing, angry José can make me smile. Chelsea had a decent chance to score a third as Hazard found Pedro in the box, thankfully the shot was saved by Foster and Loftus-Cheek put the follow-up wide. The Hornets had a chance to pull one back as Mariappa crossed for Doucouré, who couldn’t get above the ball, so it came off the top of his head and flew over the bar. At the other end, the home side had a great chance to increase their lead as a shot from Higuaín was kept out by a brilliant save from Foster. Then Chalobah played a lovely ball for Deulofeu who hit a decent cross towards Deeney, but Alonso put the ball out for a corner.
Gracia made his first substitution replacing Chalobah with Cleverley. It had been an interesting choice before the game, but Nate had justified his selection putting in the best performance that I have seen from him since he came back from injury. Watford had another chance to reduce the deficit when Deulofeu found Hughes in prime position, but the shot was appalling. A number around us were berating him for passing instead of shooting. It looked like a shot to me, but it was that poor that it was mistaken for a pass. Any hopes the Hornets had of a comeback were dashed when Pedro played the ball to Higuaín, Foster came out to meet him, but the Argentine chipped the keeper and found the net. But Watford were still fighting and Deeney should have done better when the ball fell to him, but he belted his shot over the bar. There was a much better chance soon after when Holebas nicked the ball and rounded Luiz, but his shot rebounded agonisingly off the crossbar. Each side made late substitutions. Giroud replaced Higuaín for the home side, while Deeney and Deulofeu made way for Gray and Success. Troy looked furious when he saw the board go up indicating that his afternoon was over. Watford finally had the ball in the net, and it was typical of our day. A free kick from Pereyra appeared to have been cleared off the line by Holebas, Success got his head on it, but it bounced off Gray on the way in and was flagged offside due to Gray’s inadvertent touch. Chelsea should have scored a fourth as Hazard crossed for Giroud who scuffed his shot and cleared the bar.
Watford had a half chance as Hughes crossed for Success, but the header was an easy catch for Kepa. The last substitution for Chelsea saw Cahill come on for Luiz, he was handed the captain’s armband and got the biggest cheer of the afternoon. Femenía went on a decent run, but his cross was turned around for a corner. The first card of the game came in time added on as Doucouré was cautioned for a pull on Hazard. Foster was in action twice in added time, first to divert a shot from Hazard into the side netting, then to gather a low shot from Giroud. The last chance of the game fell to the Hornets, but the shot from Success was poor and easily saved by Kepa.
We headed back to Parsons Green to drown our sorrows. As we arrived at the pub, we saw the Chelsea fan who had wished us luck at Wembley before the game. His verdict, “We robbed you.” He wasn’t wrong. The scoreline indicated that we had been well beaten, the pattern of the game nothing of the kind. But this has been the case in a number of our games against the top six this season. Similar to the matches against Arsenal and Manchester United, we dominated large parts of the game, but could not turn that domination into goals and were let down by defensive mistakes. In the first half in particular, the passing was incredibly slick, and we played some gorgeous football but our finishing let us down. It was great to see Troy back. He looked hungry and desperate to make up for lost time and we saw the leadership that we had been missing. As frustrating as the afternoon had been, the conversation soon took a positive turn as we reflected how far this team has come. In contrast to when we were first promoted, I now travel to most games feeling that we have a team good enough to get something from the game. It is very rare that we leave a ground with that humiliating feeling of having been taught a lesson by a much better team. That is something to be relished and when we look back on this season, it will be with pride and happiness and a sense that we have progressed.