On Wednesday evening was the 20 year (almost) reunion for the squad that won the play-off final in 1999. I have been to a number of wonderful evenings following the club, but this one was exceptional. All of the players had come back for the evening, including some (Bazeley, Hazan, Gudmundsson) that had come from overseas. The overwhelming impression from the players was a deep affection among the whole group and they seemed genuinely happy to be with each other again. The way that all of them spoke about Watford as a club was heart-warming, even those who were only here for a short time had left with very happy memories. There were also some heartfelt tributes to Graham Taylor, which must have been lovely for Rita, Karen and the other family members who were present. There were also entertaining interviews with Andrew French (who was the media officer at the time) and Ciaran Cosgrove (pink shirt man) who is totally bonkers. The culmination of the interviews and reminiscences was Robert Page and Rita Taylor on the stage lifting the play-off trophy. At that point I am not sure there was a dry eye in the house.
On to the weekend and my pre-match routine on Saturday differed from the usual as, after meeting in the West Herts, we headed for the ground and the Elton John Suite as Mike had been offered hospitality courtesy of the Community Trust. It was a chilly day with driving rain for most of the afternoon, so the comfort of an executive box was very welcome indeed. We shared the table with Derrick Williams who is employed by the Trust as well as being the brains and driving force behind Kit Aid, so it was lovely to meet him and learn about his various roles and their contributions to the local (and not so local) community.
Team news was that Gracia had made one change bringing Deulofeu in for Success. So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Sema, Doucouré, Quina, Pereyra; Deeney and Deulofeu. There was also the very welcome return of Tom Cleverley to the bench. A lovely early Christmas present for the Watford faithful.
Before kick-off, it was lovely to see banners unfurling in the Rookery celebrating Gino and Javi. I am normally under these, so it was lovely to actually see them for once.
Despite our relative league positions, this was going to be a tricky game as Cardiff had had a recent upturn in form and Watford, despite some terrific performances, had not won since October. But the Hornets started the game well and had a very early chance as Deulofeu played a one-two with Doucouré before curling a shot just wide of the target. Watford took the lead in the 16th minute as Deulofeu got the ball just outside the box, then went on a mazy dribble, it looked as though he would run into trouble but, instead, he breezed past a couple of defenders before slotting the ball past Etheridge in the Cardiff goal. It was a terrific goal and served to calm the nerves among the home fans. The Hornets had a chance to increase their lead soon after as Pereyra exchanged passes with Deeney, but his final touch was too heavy and Etheridge was out to gather. Cardiff threatened for the first time as Arter played a low ball across the goal, but the chance went begging. The visitors had a better chance to draw level when Gunnarsson’s long throw reached Paterson in the box, but his header was wide of the target. The Hornets continued to attack and some lovely passing between Deulofeu and Pereyra culminated in a shot from the Argentine that was deflected for a corner. After a period in which Watford had been passing the ball around for fun, Cardiff finally won a goal kick and, as Etheridge readied to take it, there was an ironic chant of “We’ve got the ball” from the away end.
When an injury to a Cardiff player led to a break in the game, I was amused to see Ben Foster take the opportunity to towel himself down, although with the rain lashing down it would only have been a momentary respite. Deulofeu and Pereyra combined again but this time the shot was saved by Etheridge. Then Quina, who had been lively in midfield, had his first sight of goal but his shot from distance was wide of the target. Late in the half, Pereyra won a rather soft free kick. He took it himself and it was a wonderful strike that appeared to be heading for the top corner, but Etheridge made another excellent save to keep it out. So we reached half time with a narrow lead for the Hornets, which was a bit frustrating given the amount of possession that we had had. But credit must go to Etheridge in the Cardiff goal as, without his efforts, the game would already have been out of sight for the visitors.
Our seats at the back of the Upper GT meant that we were protected from the torrential rain, but there had been a cold wind blowing during the first half, so I was very happy to be able to escape into the box for half time refreshments. The hot drinks and cheese and biscuits went down very well indeed, but I kept an eye on the pitch to ensure that I was back in the stand for start of the second half (I almost made it).
The visitors made a substitution at the break bringing Mendez-Laing on for Murphy. The Hornets started the second half as they had finished the first with a shot from Pereyra that was stopped by another excellent save by Etheridge. But the Hornets were not to be denied for long as Deulofeu laid the ball off to Holebas who curled a gorgeous shot into the top corner. It was a magnificent strike and it is always nice to see a happy Holebas. Watford had a chance for a third as Sema dribbled along the edge of the box but he shot wide of the target. Just before the hour mark, Cardiff made a second substitution bringing Peltier on for Bennett, who had picked up an injury. Cardiff had a rare shot on goal with an effort from the edge of the area by Camarasa that flew just wide. The Hornets’ third goal was another cracker, Sema played the ball back to Quina who curled a beauty past Etheridge, leading to a joyous celebration as he ran over and hugged the substitutes on the touchline. The chances continued as Deulofeu found Holebas who stuck his foot out and diverted the ball towards the top corner, but yet again Etheridge made a save. Hoilett had a great chance to pull one back for the visitors, but his header cleared the bar. Watford made their first substitution of the day with 15 minutes to go, bringing Success on for Sema. The substitute was immediately involved in a one-two with Deulofeu whose shot was disappointing, especially as he really should have passed to Doucouré who was in an acre of space in the box.
The visitors made their final change of the afternoon replacing Gunnarsson with Reid. Just when we thought this would be a comfortable afternoon for the Hornets, Hoilett hit a beautiful curling shot from outside the area to the top corner. So no clean sheet, but it was to get worse almost immediately as another ball into the Watford box led to a goalmouth scramble. There appeared to be two players in an offside position when Foster blocked a shot from Bamba, so we were waiting for the whistle to go, but the ball rebounded to Reid who scored to put the visitors back in the game and to reboot the nerves. Between the goals, Deeney had made way for Okaka and the Watford fans cheered up somewhat at the sight of the return of Cleverley who came on for Deulofeu. Tom was in action immediately with a shot that was blocked before Quina put the follow-up wide. Then Doucouré could have calmed Watford nerves with a terrific shot but, yet again, it was met with a terrific save from Etheridge. There were groans as the fourth official held up the board indicating that there were 5 minutes of added time and the visitors had a chance to grab an equaliser that would have been a travesty, as Camarasa put a free kick into the box, but Foster was out to make the stop although it took him two attempts to gather it. There was much relief when the final whistle went.
At the end of the match there was complete bafflement. Watford had been coasting until the first Cardiff goal, which seemed to give the visitors confidence and the home side jitters. While we weren’t exactly hanging on at the end, the memory of the last minute at Goodison Park on Monday was too fresh for me to feel comfortable until the final whistle had gone. It has to be said that the players (with the notable exceptions of Kabasele and Cathcart) made a rapid exit from the pitch, but that was probably just to dry off after the soaking. But, with time to reflect, apart from that dodgy 3 minutes this was a superb performance by the Hornets. They were playing some lovely football, but there were also plenty of shots and three goals so gorgeous that there was a comment on Match of the Day that there could have been a goal of the day competition that only included goals from this game (Hoilett’s wasn’t too shabby either). It was a great team effort, but praise must still go to Deulofeu who was absolutely excellent, Doucouré who is back to his best and the wonderful Quina who is not just very skilful, but also plays with an assurance that belies his tender years.
At the end of the day, there was massive relief that the winless streak is over and the performances in the past week have been excellent and deservedly lifted us back into the top half of the table. Let us hope that we continue in this vein as football is suddenly fun again.