Tag Archives: Aston Villa FC

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.

 

Ending the Decade on a High

A festive Hornet shop

I left home bright and early aiming to be at the West Herts at midday.  Unfortunately, a signalling problem at West Drayton meant that the train that I had planned to catch from Slough was cancelled and I ended up on a train that had made an unscheduled stop due to congestion and kindly opened its doors to let the stranded passengers on.  It was slow progress and I finally arrived in the West Herts nearly three hours after leaving home and just in time to see Don leaving for the ground.

Most of our usual crowd were gathered at ‘our’ table with the addition of Jacque’s colleague, Adam, who is a Villa fan and was not relishing the prospect of the game, while the Watford contingent were fired up with some newfound optimism after the last couple of results.

The decision about what to have for lunch is usually quite simple but, on this occasion, I was in the horns of a dilemma.  I do love the jerk chicken but, for some reason, I had ordered sausage and chips before the Man United game, so that now qualified as the lucky lunch and had to be my order.

Capoue barking instructions

My sister had been unable to buy a ticket for the game, having left it late before finding that it was (surprisingly) sold out.  Luckily a friend wasn’t using hers and kindly offered to lend it to her.  We had arranged to meet Pete outside the Red Lion to pick up the spare ticket and I had handed my ticket to my sister so that she could sit with her daughter, so I left the West Herts not having a ticket for the game on my person, which induced a ridiculous mini panic until I spotted Pete and had Julie’s ticket in my hands (thank you, Julie).

Team news was that Pearson had made only one change with Chalobah making way for Doucouré on his return from suspension.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Hughes; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

I tried to take a spare seat in my usual row to sit with the family, but the lad who usually sits there turned up just after kick-off so I belatedly made my way to the back of the Rookery to sit with Pete and experience a different (elevated) view of the field of play.

Celebrating Troy’s first goal

The Hornets started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead as a corner from Hughes was headed on by Deeney to Kabasele whose shot was stopped by a reaction save from Heaton in the Villa goal.  Then Deulofeu played a cross-field ball to Sarr, whose shot was blocked by a defender for a corner that came to nothing.  There was little more action of note until the 26th minute when Villa launched a counterattack, Hourihane crossed for Wesley who looked to have scored with a header from close range, but a brilliant save from Foster kept him out.  The visitors had a shout for a penalty when Wesley went down in the box following a challenge by Cathcart.  It was an age before the VAR check came up on the big screen and there were loud cheers when the referee indicated that we were to play on.  The Hornets fashioned another chance when a free kick from Hughes was punched clear by Heaton, but only as far as Doucouré whose shot was well over the bar.  Soon after, a free kick from Deulofeu was met by the head of Sarr but the ball ended up on the roof of the net.  Then Mariappa released Sarr who played a lovely low cross into the box but there was no Watford player to meet it, so it was easily gathered by Heaton.  Hughes was the next to try his luck with a shot from distance, but it was well over the target.  A lovely cross-field ball from Capoue found Sarr who cut into the box, but his shot was deflected for a corner.  Watford nearly broke the deadlock from the set piece when the ball dropped to Deeney, but he hit his shot straight at Heaton.  Watford finally took the lead in the 42nd minute when Villa gave the ball away, Doucouré tried a shot that was parried by Heaton to Deeney who put the ball under the Villa keeper and into the net.  So the Hornets went into half time with a narrow lead.  It was well deserved as, apart from the early shot from Wesley, it had been all Watford.

Gathering for a corner

The half time guest was Bill Shipwright, who played for Watford in the 50s so was way before my time and I couldn’t hear the interview.  There was also the added bonus of Christian Battochio who was on ticket duty for the 50/50 draw.

Pearson was forced to make a substitution at the break.  Hughes had picked up an injury towards the end of the first half and was replaced by Chalobah.  Villa also made a change bringing El Ghazi on for Jota.  The Hornets started the half in a positive manner with a shot from Doucouré that was deflected for a corner.  Watford threatened again as Capoue crossed for Sarr whose shot was blocked.  The first booking of the game went to Mariappa for a foul on Grealish.  Chalobah then had a chance to extend the Watford lead with a shot from distance that cleared the bar.  Disaster then befell the home side as Mariappa was shown a second yellow for a supposed foul on former Watford loanee, Lansbury.  From my vantage point it appeared that Lansbury ran into Mariappa (who doesn’t have a bad bone in his body), but pleas to the referee fell on deaf ears and the Hornets were reduced to 10 men with over half an hour of the game to go.  Pearson immediately made a change and you had to feel for Chalobah who was sacrificed for Dawson.

Sarr and Capoue are under there somewhere

Just as the nerves were starting to jangle, Deeney ran into the box and was brought down by Luiz.  It looked a bit soft from behind the goal but, having seen it later from another angle (as the VAR did), it was nailed on as Deeney was shoved to the ground.  There was a delay before the spot kick could be taken as Targett had been down injured.  There were some complaints from Villa players that the Hornets had played on around him, but they had had the opportunity to put the ball out of play when he first went down and had not done so, so their complaints were unwarranted.  Targett was replaced by Guilbert before the penalty could be taken.  Then Troy stepped up and blasted the ball down the middle to put the Hornets two goals up and ease my nerves somewhat.  The nerves were properly calmed on 70 minutes when Deeney released Capoue who played a gorgeous cross for Sarr who sped into the box to meet it and shot past Heaton.  My heart sank when VAR was invoked for a possible foul in the build-up and I begged for that gorgeous goal not to be disallowed.  After an agonising wait, the referee pointed to the centre circle and I punched the air again.  On 72 minutes, GT’s face came up on the big screen adorned with both Watford and Villa badges and the great man’s name was sung with gusto as I wiped a tear from my eye.

Capoue, Doucoure and Femenia prepare for a free kick

The visitors made a final change bringing Kodja on for Lansbury.  The referee’s card was out again as Capoue was booked for an altercation with Grealish.  On 77 minutes, Villa had their first on-target shot of the half as Hourihane tried his luck from the edge of the area, but his shot was straight at Foster.  There was another booking for the Hornets as Sarr was cautioned for trying to stop a Villa free kick.  When they finally took it, the ball was played out to Grealish whose shot flew wide of the near post.  The final change for the Hornets saw Masina on to replace Cathcart, who had been treated for an injury shortly before.  Grealish had another chance to pull a goal back with a shot from outside the area but, again, his effort flew wide of the near post.  There were two late bookings, one for each side.  First Deeney for bundling Luiz over.  Then Grealish for kicking the ball at Sarr as he lay on the ground.  The booking for the Villa captain was not before time as he had been behaving petulantly all afternoon.  There was a touch of handbags at this point, but no more cards were shown and the final whistle went on a very satisfying win for the Hornets.

Capoue readying to take a corner

I had rather enjoyed my afternoon watching the game from the gods.  It is nice to have a different perspective and it was noisier up there with the contribution of the few from the 1881 that moved just behind us.  My neighbours were rather lovely too.  A man with his two small daughters, which I always love to see.  Needless to say, when the crowd rose to their feet, which they did less often than they do further down where I usually sit, the father would lift the girl next to me off her seat so that she could see and I made myself useful by putting the seat down for her to stand on.  We had it down to a fine art by the end of the game.

Back to the West Herts and we were all smiles, apart from poor Adam who was very gracious in defeat admitting that they deserved nothing from the game.  It had been a tremendous performance from the Hornets who had run the show all afternoon.  The game took place less than 48 hours after the end of the United game and yet the players were all working very hard for the win and were resilient when down to 10 men.  Deulofeu worked his socks off and was unlucky not to have more influence on the game.  Femenía was tremendous again in the left back position.  Deeney was back to his battling self and was thoroughly enjoying answering the jeers of the Villa fans with his goals.  But it was Sarr who deservedly won man of the match for a wonderful performance.  It took him a while to learn how to play the English game, but he is now showing why the Pozzos paid all that money for him.  A month ago we felt doomed, now we are only 3 points away from safety and our prospects for the new year are looking increasingly positive.

So, following the last game of this decade, I can’t help but reflect on the past 10 years.  We started 2010 with Malky in charge and an unhappy ownership who were struggling for money.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, we then had the horror of Bassini’s reign, and I am so thankful that there were still good people on the board and among the staff who kept the club going.  The arrival of the Pozzos had some concerned about foreign ownership, but they have built the team and the infrastructure into one that can compete in the Premier League while still maintaining the feel of a community club and for that I will be eternally grateful.  While the start to this season was dreadful, we go into 2020 with a spirit of optimism and I look forward to more wonderful adventures over the next 10 years following my team.

Thank-you, GT

Banner for the great man

I have to admit that I was furious when this game was changed from Vicarage Road to Villa Park.  I had booked my holiday after the announcement of the Graham Taylor tribute game, so to find that I would now be unable to attend was a bitter pill to swallow.  But an opportunity to go to Villa Park, a ground that I love, was not to be missed.  On the train to Birmingham, my podcast of choice was Colin Murray at home with Luther Blissett.  It is a great listen.  My annoyance at Murray’s lack of research when asking Luther about the first time he played at Old Trafford was tempered by his gleeful reaction when Luther told the story of what happened on that occasion.  Needless to say, they finished up talking about GT and both with great fondness. Since GT’s passing, Luther takes every opportunity to pay tribute to his friend.  Marking anniversaries of triumphs and just saying thank-you for the memories.  It has been lovely to see and is a mark of the great characters of both GT and Luther.

Our pre-match pub is lovely and it was great to have my sister, brother-in-law and niece joining a very reduced travelling party.  A gin festival was taking place which, added to the real ale and lovely food usually on offer, meant that everyone was happy after lunch.  As we waited at the bus stop to go to Villa Park, we struck up a conversation with a lovely couple.  It was a mixed marriage, she was a Villa fan, he was a blue-nose.  We talked about our mutual admiration for GT.  She told us about the tribute they had at Villa Park.  A wreath was laid on the pitch and Rita, Joanne and Karen were there.  As we parted company she wistfully commented, “I wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t taken the England job.”  That gave me pause for thought.  I wonder if he would have stayed at Villa and maybe moved on to a bigger club.  In that case, we wouldn’t have had that wonderful second spell.  But he didn’t and we were all there to celebrate the wonderful memories that he left us with.

Chalobah on the ball

The crucial piece of team news was that Pereyra would be making his first public appearance this pre-season after featuring against Rangers at London Colney earlier in the week.  The starting line-up was Gomes; Cathcart, Kabasele, Kaboul, Mason; Cleverley, Doucouré, Chalobah; Amrabat, Sinclair, Pereyra.  Villa included former Watford loanees, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Henry Lansbury in their starting XI.

As soon as the teams emerged from the tunnel, they lined up and there was a minute’s applause for GT with both sets of fans singing “There’s only one Graham Taylor” at the tops of their voices.  It was very moving.

Villa had a very early chance as Agbonlahor broke free to challenge Gomes, but it was the Watford keeper who came out on top.  Watford had to make an early substitution.  I must admit that I was rather disappointed to hear Pereyra’s name announced as the player leaving the pitch.  He looked baffled himself and, to my shame, I was relieved when it turned out that it was Kabasele going off.  In my defence, he was being replaced by Prödl!

Waiting for a ball into the box

Sinclair should have opened the scoring after quarter of an hour.  Doucouré found Pereyra who played a through ball for Sinclair who only had the keeper to beat, but fired wide.  On the half hour, here was a stir in the away end as Deeney appeared pitch-side and, after some negotiation with the stewards, made his way into the stand to sit with the Watford fans.  Needless to say, it took him some time to get to his seat.  Watford had another chance as Chalobah got into a great shooting position, but he fired over.  We reached half time goalless.  It had been a pretty dull half of football.  The home side had the majority of the possession, but neither keeper had been tested.

At the restart, Pereyra made way for Success.  The Nigerian made an immediate contribution, crossing to Cleverley, who played the ball back to Chalobah who, again, fired over the bar.  Then Cleverley took a free kick from a dangerous position, but it was directed straight at the Villa keeper, Steer.  Disaster struck as Kaboul tripped Hutton in the box and the referee pointed to the penalty spot.  In the away end, we were singing the name of Heurelho Gomes with all our might and our man celebrated his new contract by guessing correctly and diving to his left to save Henry Lansbury’s spot kick.  We were located in the away section closest to the home stand.  When the penalty was awarded, they took the opportunity to taunt us.  So, when the penalty was saved, I was a little taken aback (and rather proud) when my usually mild-mannered niece, after celebrating the save, gave them some grief back.

My first look at Femenia

On the hour mark, Silva made five changes with Gomes, Kaboul, Cleverley, Doucouré and Amrabat making way for Pantilimon, Femenía, Watson, Hughes and Okaka.  There was a lovely move as Success released Femenía who advanced down the right wing before delivering the return ball for Success to try a shot from distance that flew wide of the near post.  The game had livened up since the substitutions and there was another nice move as Femenía crossed for Success, whose side footed shot was blocked and rebounded to Hughes who, unfortunately, was unable to follow-up.  Another chance fell to Success but, on this occasion, the shot was weak.  Just before the 72nd minute struck, the Villa fans started the applause, the travelling Hornets joined in and the chorus of “One Graham Taylor” rang out again in earnest.  The next decent chance fell to Villa as a cross reached Amavi in front of goal, but he slashed the ball wide of the near post.  Sinclair had a golden chance to open the scoring as he ran on to a ball over the defence from Success, but the keeper arrived first.  The final chance fell to the home side as Hourihane hit a shot from the edge of the area, but Pantilimon was equal to it and the game ended with honours even.

The shame of buying a half and half scarf

It had been a typical pre-season game with nobody taking any chances.  From a Watford perspective, the second half had been livelier than the first.  It was good to see Pereyra back.  The first impression of Femenía was very positive and there was some nice interplay between him and Hughes.  If Sinclair had been sharper in front of goal, we would all have gone home happy.  But this game was not about the result, it was about 10,900 people gathering to pay tribute to Graham Taylor.  The legacy that the man has left will never leave Watford and Villa also have reason to thank him hugely for rescuing them from the doldrums.  On the way out of the ground, I spotted some people with half and half scarves.  I usually sneer at these, but this scarf had a picture of GT sewn into it, so I had to have one.

On the train home, I opened the match programme.  I had to close it again pretty quickly as the sight of a middle-aged woman sobbing on the train would not have been a pretty one.  Typical of the man, among the tributes from former players were those from the kit man, the club secretary and the programme writer.  There was one word that featured in the majority of tributes, it was ‘gentleman’.  There was also a lovely piece written by his daughter, Joanne.  A fitting tribute to a wonderful man.

It was Graham Taylor who introduced me to Watford.  In the years that have passed, I have laughed and cried over football.  I have made many wonderful friends and spent time bonding with family over a shared passion.  But, behind it all, there was the man with the big smile, who always had time for you whoever you were.  The huge amount of love that his many fans feel for Graham is a mark of the warmth and kindness of the man.  He will be greatly missed for a long time to come.  The only thing I can say is “Thank-you, GT.”

 

Mathematically Safe at Last

Abdi and Paredes

Abdi and Paredes

The week before this game was dominated by feelings of disappointment following the FA Cup semi-final at which our team really didn’t do themselves justice.  I had a clear indication of my level of disillusion after that game when I realized on Tuesday morning that I had completely forgotten to buy tickets for the trip to Norwich the previous day.  Normally I buy my tickets for away games as soon as they go on sale.

In the wider football world, the main news of the week had been the final verdicts in the Hillsborough inquest.  Those of us who went to football in the 80s were all too aware of the conditions that we faced at grounds and the attitudes of the authorities towards us.  What happened at Hillsborough could just as easily have happened to me and my family and friends and the vilification that the victims and their families have endured over the past 27 years has been shocking beyond belief.  I am very thankful that the truth that was so evident to anyone without an agenda in the 80s is now a matter of record.  Well done to the families for never giving up their fight for justice.

Miguel Britos

Miguel Britos

On the train to the game, I was reading the BBC football website and the responses to their request for people to comment on what they were looking forward to from the day’s football.  One comment stood out.  “Does anyone care about Watford vs Aston Villa? #deadrubber.”  It was hard to argue with that viewpoint although, even though I have felt that we were safe ever since we hit 37 points, Watford were not yet mathematically safe from relegation.  When we took our seats in the Rookery, I was very impressed with the number of Aston Villa fans who had made the journey from Birmingham for this fixture.  Although the mood among them did not seem particularly positive as, with good reason, they booed when the name of their captain, Lescott, was read out.

One other story dominating the Watford press during the week concerned the strong rumours that Flores would be on his way during the Summer.  Speculation regarding his future seemed grossly unfair given that he had achieved the aim of keeping Watford in the Premier League with the added bonus of an FA Cup semi-final.  The reaction to these rumours on the social media that I bother with had been mixed, so it was pleasing to see the 1881 display a flag bearing Flores’ face prior to kick off.

Flores in the dugout

Flores in the dugout

Team news was that there were four changes from Sunday with Gomes, Paredes, Anya and Suárez in for Pantilimon, Nyom, Aké and Capoue.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Anya, Britos, Cathcart, Paredes, Jurado, Watson, Suárez, Abdi, Deeney and Ighalo.  The Watford players all took to the pitch wearing black armbands which I assumed were in honour of Ighalo’s father who passed away last week, but I am happy to be contradicted on that one.

The support for Flores from the Watford fans continued after kick off as his name was chanted non-stop for the first 15 minutes of the game.  Watford started well and fashioned an early chance as a cross from Abdi reached Jurado who played the ball out to Suárez whose shot was over the bar.  Then Deeney got his head to a Jurado cross, but his connection was not solid and the ball flew wide of the Villa goal.  Jurado went on a promising run which finished with a cross that was too far in front of Ighalo.  Then Ighalo did well to beat a couple of defenders in the box, but his shot was blocked for a corner while Deeney was in space.  At this point Troy let his strike partner know in no uncertain terms how unhappy he was with his decision making.  A chant of “Championship you’re having a laugh” emanated from the away end and I could only assume this was aimed at their own players who had been woeful to that point.

Abdi and Suarez line up for the free kick that led to the goal

Abdi and Suarez line up for the free kick that led to the goal

Deeney made what looked like a terrible tackle on Bacuna who, thankfully, got up unharmed and there was no punishment for Deeney beyond the award of the free kick.  Paredes found Abdi on the overlap, his cross reached Ighalo at the far post where his shot was blocked by Bunn sticking a foot out.  At this point, half way through the first half, the Rookery crowd were yelling “shoot”, every time a Watford player got the ball anywhere near the Villa box and they were rewarded when Watson blasted a volley from distance that crashed off the crossbar.  Villa’s first goal attempt came on 26 minutes and it was a dreadful shot from distance by Ayew that flew well over the target.  This prompted the travelling Villa fans to jump up and down celebrating as if a goal had been scored while chanting “We’ve had a shot”.   So it was a shock to everyone in the ground when the visitors took the lead two minutes later as Clark met a Westwood corner and headed it past Gomes.  The Villa fans celebrated properly and followed up with “Easy, easy” and “We scored a goal.”  Watford looked to hit back through Deeney who latched on to a ball over the top and won a corner off Toner.  Jurado’s delivery was headed on by Britos to Abdi who should have done better with the shot, but he directed it way off target.  Villa threatened again with a cross from Hutton, but Cathcart was on hand to head clear.

Celebrating Abdi's strike

Celebrating Abdi’s strike

The Villa fans continued their continuous singing with “There’s only one Graham Taylor”, which was lovely and I was very disappointed that the Watford fans didn’t join in (I seemed to be on my own).  The first caution went to Bacuna for a trip on Anya.  Watford’s next chance on goal came when Deeney met a cross from Suárez with a hopeful header that flew wide.  The visitors nearly extended their lead with a header from Ayew that hit the post.  Watford had a decent chance to equalize as Ighalo met a cross from Abdi with a header, but Lescott was in close attendance and the ball bounced off him and safely to Bunn.  In time added on at the end of the half, when a large number of fans were already in the concourses queuing for their half time refreshments, Gueye was booked for a foul on Abdi just outside the box.  Almen stepped up to take the free kick himself and took the perfect free kick, hitting it up and over the wall and into the net past Bunn.  Having got my camera out to capture Deeney’s penalty at West Ham, I felt like I had jinxed it, so the camera was left in my pocket as Abdi stepped up I was rewarded with a goal.

Challenging at a Watford corner

Challenging at a Watford corner

On the balance of play, Watford deserved to go in to the break level.  We had been much the better side in the first 20 minutes and towards the end of the half, but heads had gone down after Villa took the lead and we had been poor in that period.

At half time, the U18s were given their trophy and medals for winning the Professional Development League 2 South.  The presentation took place in front of the SEJ stand, so they had their backs to those of us in the Rookery and I was disappointed that there was no lap of honour.

At the start of the second half, I realized that my notes on the first period had omitted any comment on the performance of the visitors.  As I looked up from writing “Villa dreadful” I saw Ayew running towards us with no Watford player anywhere near and he beat Gomes to restore the lead for the visitors.  That’ll teach me for tempting fate.  Villa threatened again as Ayew and Westwood broke forward before finding Gestede who shot high and wide prompting boos from the Rookery.

Cathcart and Deeney

Cathcart and Deeney

Flores made his first substitution just before the hour mark and, when the board went up showing that it was Paredes who would make way, there were loud cheers from the Watford fans.  He was replaced by Berghuis, who had impressed at West Ham.  More of the same please, Steven.  Watford had a great chance to draw level again as a Jurado corner was met by a header from Deeney that was cleared off the line.  At the other end, a free kick from Westwood was met with a header from Toner that went wide of the target.  Berghuis tried an audacious shot from distance which was deflected, taking the pace off it and ensuring it was easy for Bunn to deal with.  The 1881 had clearly lost patience with their team at this point as there were chants of “Are you Villa in disguise.”  Never good to hear fans getting so negative towards their own players.  Flores made a second substitution replacing Jurado with Amrabat.  Watford had an opportunity to equalize as Watson released Anya who went on a tremendous run down the middle of the pitch and was clean through on goal when Cissokho took him down on the edge of the box.  The Villa man was shown a red card for preventing a goal scoring opportunity.  Abdi’s free kick came back off the wall and the chance came to nothing.  The Villa keeper, Bunn, was booked for time wasting in an incident in which Ighalo lost patience with him delaying a kick, so decided to take it himself.

Gomes takes a goal kick

Gomes takes a goal kick

Watford threatened again as a Berghuis cross to the far post was blocked before it reached Deeney, it fell to Amrabat whose cross was headed wide by Ighalo.  There were hopeful appeals for a penalty when Britos went down under a challenge as a cross from Abdi came into the box, but the referee waved play on.  Frustration built further among the home fans as a series of crosses into the Villa box were met by defenders’ heads.  As the game drew to a close, Watford were pushing for an equalizer as a cross from Amrabat was palmed out by Bunn and then a powerful shot from Berghuis flew just wide.  The young Dutchman turned provider as the clock reached 90 minutes with a cross that was headed home by Deeney.  The Rookery went wild and, as Troy had been given constant abuse from the Villa fans, he appeared to enjoy his goal celebration at their end very much indeed.  The Watford fans followed the goal with a chant of “That boy, Troy Deeney, he hates the Villa.”  The announcement of five minutes of added time was greeted with loud cheers from the Watford faithful and they were rewarded three minutes into injury time as Ighalo knocked the ball down to Deeney who powered it past Bunn to win the game for the home side.

Abdi takes a throw-in

Abdi takes a throw-in

Just like the game at Villa Park earlier in the season, it was an unconvincing performance from the Hornets and we were very fortunate to come away with the three points.  Deeney had not looked happy during the game, but he was the hero of the day after hitting the two goals to secure the win.  As at West Ham, Berghuis had put in a very lively performance when he came on.  It was great to see him run at players.  He didn’t always succeed in beating them, but kept the ball on enough occasions to make you want to see him do it again.  The three points ensured that we remained in 12th position and were now mathematically safe from relegation.  I never thought that would be the case with three games remaining in the season.

We were listening to 3 Counties in the car on the way home and, given a lot of the anti-Flores stuff on social media during the week, I found it interesting that both the presenter and the majority of those sending in messages believed that Flores should still be the Watford manager next season.

It is all down to expectations.  I expected Watford to struggle this season and I suspect that my tolerance of the performances that I have seen lately is down to the fact that they are more in line with what I was expecting for this season.  The fact that we have also been treated to some very entertaining football and some historic wins means that Flores and his players are still in credit as far as I am concerned.

 

A Rare Win at Villa Park

Pre-match huddle

Pre-match huddle

Having endured the international break and then missed the Man Utd game due to work commitments, I was very happy to be going to a football match again.  On the train to Birmingham, I spotted a familiar face so was graced with delightful company for the journey.  The pre-match pub was a good one and even featured a blackboard offering “a match made in heaven” which was perched atop some gold and red baubles.  Was this a good omen?  A couple of the usual suspects were accompanied by Villa fans who, along with the locals, were prophets of doom for their team’s chances.  That always worries me as, in many years of following the Hornets, the bankers have never been those that we win.

Team news was that Flores had made two changes from the Man United game bringing Aké and Paredes in for Anya and Jurado.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Aké, Cathcart, Britos, Nyom, Watson, Capoue, Abdi, Deeney, Paredes and Ighalo.

A blurred celebration of the first goal

A blurred celebration of the first goal

The first chance of the game fell to the visitors as Ighalo played in Deeney on the edge of the box, but he hit the ball over the bar.  This bright start was followed by a longish spell of Villa pressure.  Ayew was the first to threaten the Watford goal as he broke forward and crossed, Gomes parried and Cathcart cleared.  Then, from a corner, a Sinclair header rebounded off the bar to safety.  Another Villa corner was met by Cathcart who cleared over the bar.  On 13 minutes, the young lad behind me complained that we should be winning.  That level of expectation is always worrying as it stops the crowd getting behind the team when they need them most.  Thankfully, he was placated 3 minutes later as Watford took the lead against the run of play.  Ighalo got into the box and manoeuvered into position for a shot, which was saved, the ball fell to Watson on the edge of the box, his shot was blocked and the ball rebounded to Ighalo who was in front of the Villa defence and made no mistake with his finish.  As we celebrated, the Villa players were calling for an offside decision.  Clark came over to question the lino on our side of the field, but was sent packing and the Hornets were a goal to the good.  The mood in the away end improved and there was even a spell of bouncing.  Watford looked to increase their lead but Deeney’s cross was cut out by Richards who had Ighalo lurking behind him.  Villa broke straight down the other end to win a corner from which they really should have scored, but Ayew shot wide from close range when it looked easier to hit the target.

An Abdi leap to challenge

An Abdi leap to challenge

Another Villa corner was headed clear by Watson.  At the other end, Deeney played a lovely through ball to Capoue, who had the goal at his mercy but shot straight at Guzan giving him an easy block.  Pete commented that maybe Capoue should get the odd half chance, because he never buries the easy ones.  A long ball from Britos was cleared by Richards with Deeney challenging.  Then Sánchez gave the ball away to Deeney, who probably should have tried a shot but instead tried a pass to Ighalo that was intercepted by Richards.  At the other end, a ball into the Watford box was cleared as far as Gueye who curled a shot just wide.  Villa had a great chance to equalize on the half hour as Ayew’s shot was parried by Gomes.  Sinclair should have done better with the follow-up, but hit it straight at the Watford keeper.  Sinclair then had a much better effort that required a really good save from Gomes to keep it out.  There was frustration for the visitors as Ighalo was prevented from reaching a lovely ball from Abdi by a tug on his shirt that was missed by the referee, much to his and our annoyance.  At the other end, the home side had another great chance to equalize as a corner reached Clark in the 6 yard box and he slid the ball wide from close range.  Villa threatened again as a Gomes punch went to Sánchez who, kindly, returned it to the Watford keeper.  With 10 minutes to half time, Villa won a free kick.  There were a lot of complaints in the away end about the distance that the referee pushed the wall back as it seemed considerably more than the required 10 yards.  The kick was taken, Richards had a free header and the game was level.  If truth be told, it was no more than Villa deserved as the visitors had been hanging on for some time.  The home side had a chance to take the lead just before half time, but Ayew just failed to connect with Sinclair’s ball across the box.

Britos lines up a free kick

Britos lines up a free kick

So the game was level at half time, but it had been a poor half from the visitors.  The weather which was windy with rain showers may have had an effect on the players, but it was certainly affecting the crowd.  Those who had priority booking for this game were housed in the lower tier.  My party were fortunate as our seats were far enough up that we had the protection of the roof, but half time saw the concourse packed with those from the seats at the front taking shelter from the rain.

There was a lively start to the second half as a Watson corner was met by a back-header from Deeney that was cleared.  Another corner was met with a side foot from Deeney that was cleared off the line.  On the hour, Gomes parried a cross and, while we missed seeing his collision with Cathcart, it was soon apparent from our vantage point in the stands that he was in a lot of pain, holding his head.  Heurelho was down having treatment for a considerable time, which is always a worry.  During the long break in play, the Villa fans decided to goad Deeney and the Watford fans responded with “Troy Deeney, Watford’s Number 9”.  I think it was also during this period that a moron in the Watford crowd decided to throw a flare onto the pitch.  They were identified and arrested so no more away days for them.  Heurelho was finally put into a neck brace and carried off on a stretcher, a sad sight.  But I was very impressed to see the Villa fans all rising to stand and applaud him off.  That is the way that it should be, but it was still really nice to see.  He was replaced by Arlauskis who came on wearing a short sleeved shirt on a cold day.  At the same time, Anya came on for Paredes, who had not had the best of games.  For the home side Adama Traoré replaced Gil.

Paredes on the move

Paredes on the move

Very soon after the game restarted Watford regained the lead.  A ball into the box from Deeney just seemed to drift into the Villa goal.  I couldn’t see who applied the final touch but it was put down as an own goal by Hutton.  Villa tried to bounce back from a corner, but the ball was turned just wide by Watson.  Then Nyom exchanged passes with Capoue on the right wing and hit a cross that was just a little too far in front of Ighalo.  Traoré had been menacing the Watford defence with his pace since he came on and soon drew a foul from Capoue that earned the Watford man a yellow card.  With 10 minutes remaining, Guedioura, the man with a permanent smile on his face, came on for Abdi.  Watford had a decent chance to further increase their lead as a lovely ball over the top from Cathcart was met with a volley by Deeney which flew over the bar.  Villa’s next substitution saw Gueye replaced by Gestede, which was a bit of a worry as I feel that he has done well against us in the past.  Arlauskis’s first involvement was not impressive as he dropped a cross from Traoré but, luckily, a defender was on hand to welly the ball clear.

The players' celebration masked by that in the Deadly Doug stand

The players’ celebration masked by that in the Deadly Doug stand

Watford were given a welcome cushion as a shot from Ighalo was blocked and looped up for Deeney to head home in front of the Holte End.  Judging by his reaction, I think Troy enjoyed that goal as much as, if not more than, we did.  The next contribution from Arlauskis was as worrying as his first, as an easy ball into the box that appeared to be falling straight into his arms was fumbled and dropped.  Thankfully he was alone in the box so had time to recover.  Villa pulled a goal back with a couple of minutes of normal time remaining as Ayew got the ball in the box turned and hit a terrific shot past Arlauskis to set up a nervous end to the game for the travelling Hornets.  From the restart Guedioura went on an impressive run and unleashed a shot that Guzan pushed around the post.  There was no surprise when the fourth official indicated 10 minutes of time added on but we could have done without it.  However, the first chance of time added on fell to the Hornets and it was Guedioura again but, again, Guzan was equal to his shot.  Aké was the next to get in on the act, hitting a shot from the edge of the area that was deflected wide.  Then a long ball flew over the head of Sánchez, as Deeney ran on to it the travelling faithful were screaming at him to shoot, but he took his time and his shot was blocked for a corner.  Deeney had another run on goal, this time instead of shooting he passed to Capoue whose cross was blocked for a corner, which was a good opportunity to waste a bit of time and the full time whistle went for a Watford win, provoking huge cheers in the away end.  In the post-match celebrations Flores blew a kiss to the crowd, while Deeney was beaming and couldn’t stop himself from gesturing (although not in a vulgar manner) to the home crowd.  They had given him enough grief that they deserved a little back.  Apart from that, there were very few of them left and it amused us greatly.

Ake and Ighalo anticipate

Ake and Ighalo anticipate

This wasn’t a great performance from the Hornets.  Our defence has been masterful this season, but was challenged more than might have been expected by a team that are struggling.  Deeney frustrated me as he seemed reluctant to shoot at times.  But we left Villa Park with three points and Deeney had scored his fourth goal in five games, so it seemed churlish to complain.  I couldn’t help harking back to our last visit to Villa Park for a league game when we went down to a harsh defeat at a time when we already felt doomed.  On this occasion, it was the home fans that were bemoaning their fate on the way out of the ground.  On the train back to London, we were sat opposite a Villa fan travelling with his son.  He had been very impressed with our movement and was much more positive about our performance than we were.  He said that he had a soft spot for Watford, probably because we had shared a manager (and what a manager).  He said that he had travelled on the local train to the ground surrounded by Watford fans and had been impressed by their spirit and conversation.  He then bemoaned what he was doing to his son by encouraging him to follow Villa when he could have chosen to support Chelsea or Man Utd.  Richard and I both assured him that his parenting skills were spot on in that regard.

We are now 14 games in to the season in 11th place and with 19 points on the board.  So just over a third of the way through the season with a points total that is almost halfway to safety.  I was sceptical about our chances following promotion, but I am loving this mid-table obscurity.

Of course the icing on the cake was the news that Gomes had been given the all clear and was able to travel home on the team bus.  He even tweeted to say that he just had a stiff neck.  What a relief.