Due to unfavourable rail connections, I ended up reaching Southampton ridiculously early and my first attempt to enter the pub of choice was greeted with a locked door and a dog barking to warn me off. Luckily Richard arrived very soon after me, so I had delightful company as we waited in the cold and wet for the clock to strike 12.
Arriving early meant that we secured a great table for our party, which soon filled up as subsequent trains (and a car from Cheshire) arrived and we raised a glass to absent friends, particularly remembering Toddy whose last away trip had been to St Mary’s.
Pre-match talk was about the new manager and whether he could arrest the current slide, so the team news was eagerly awaited. Gracia’s first team showed four changes (two enforced) as Wagué, Deeney, Zeegelaar and Pereyra made way for Mariappa, Holebas, Capoue and Gray. So the starting line-up was Karnezis; Janmaat, Mariappa, Kabasele, Holebas; Doucouré, Watson; Carrillo, Capoue, Richarlison; Gray. So, the new manager was also opting for one up front, although, in the absence of Deeney, that seemed a sensible choice.
The game started in the worst way possible as a free kick from Boufal was met by Long whose shot was parried by Karnezis, Stephens was first to the rebound and beat the Watford keeper to open the scoring. From two rows in front I heard “Are you Silva in disguise?” It was going to be a very long afternoon. The home side threatened again as Long crossed for Tadić, but his effort missed the target. Watford’s first chance came from a free-kick, Richarlison stepped up to take it and curled his delivery just wide. At the other end Long met a cross from Cédric and headed just wide. A foul on Kabasele was met with a chant of “Same old Watford, always cheating,” which I guess was deserved after the Watford fans had gleefully sung “He scores with his hands” in honour of Doucouré. Watford finally had some time on the ball but a lovely passing move finished with a terrible shot from Watson that flew well wide. This was greeted with “What the f*ing hell was that” from the away fans. Southampton threatened again after Doucouré lost out to Long who broke into the box, but Karnezis was able to make the save. The Watford keeper was called into action again soon after as Cédric tried a shot from distance, Karnezis dropped to make the save. The home side were forced into a substitution due to an injury to Bertrand who was replaced by Pied. Southampton had a great chance to increase their lead as Cédric hit a cross that flew just past the far post as Long failed to connect. As half time approached, Mike was urging the team to get an equalizer and, as Richarlison hit a cross, there was an exasperated cry of “Not like that,” but he was made to eat his words as McCarthy had to back pedal to tip it over the bar. Watford had another chance as a cross from Richarlison reached Holebas whose header from the byline was straight into the arms of McCarthy. Not for the first time in recent games, the half time whistle was greeted with boos from the away end.
The half time entertainment at Southampton was a relay race in which participants are stationed at the corners and on the half way line. A football is carried and passed between team mates until the last player gets the ball and then dribbles towards the goal to score and win the game. On Saturday, the green team went off like a rocket and were well in the lead when the final player received the ball, but he appeared to want to score the perfect goal, while the lad in purple belted towards the goal and took an early shot and won the game for his team. I hope that Gracia gets a video of this to show the lads as there was definitely a lesion to be learned.
The other action of interest at half time was Okaka coming on to warm up and being greeted with joyous cheers from the away end. I suspect that those who were so thrilled at his impending introduction had missed the trip to Leicester. But he had the second half to dispel that memory as he came on to replace Capoue.
The first action of note in the second half was a penalty appeal for the Saints as Boufal fell over in the box under a challenge from Carrillo, but the referee waved play on. The first chance of the half fell to Long but his shot was straight at Karnezis. There was a rare bright moment for the visitors as Janmaat played a lovely through ball to Carrillo but the cross was punched clear by McCarthy as Okaka rose to meet it. Southampton had a decent chance to increase their lead as Boufal tried a shot from distance, but Karnezis was equal to it. Gracia made a second substitution just before the hour mark replacing Carrillo with Pereyra. Holebas should have done better when, with the ball in a dangerous position, he ballooned his cross over the bar. As poor as the effort was, it was embarrassing to hear Watford fans chanting about how hopeless the team were (I am paraphrasing to remove the expletives). There was a card for each side as, first, Watson was booked for a foul on Tadić. Then Cédric was cautioned for taking Richarlison down, which appeared harsh as the Southampton man had won the ball before he made contact. The Saints were close to a second goal as a shot from distance from Hojbjerg rebounded off the crossbar. Then Okaka exchanged passes with Pereyra before trying a shot from a narrow angle that McCarthy was down to save. This was greeted with a chant of “We’ve had a shot.”
Watford’s final substitution saw Janmaat making way for Sinclair. Watford threatened as a cross from Richarlison was deflected for a corner. The delivery from Holebas was headed goalwards by Doucouré, but was blocked by a defender and he protested that it had hit a hand. The irony! Richarlison then played a cross-field pass to Sinclair whose shot was terrible, flying high and wide, but he was hardly going to be encouraged by his own “supporters” singing “f*ing useless” at him. Southampton made their final substitution replacing Tadić with their new signing, Carrillo, to great excitement from the home fans. But it was Watford who finished the game more positively, with a couple of late chances to earn a replay. First a shot from Richarlison was charged down. Then a Pereyra cross was met by an overhead kick from Okaka that flew over the bar. Finally, in time added on, the best chance of the lot as Kabasele met a cross from Holebas with a header that flew just wide of the near post.
The final whistle prompted some ugly scenes in the away end. There were three men behind my niece and I, screaming abuse at the players. As this went on, Amelia was infuriated shouting, “Don’t come to games then,” as she applauded the players with more enthusiasm than the performance deserved. Those men then got into a heated argument with another fan in our row. Meanwhile, a couple of rows in front, an exchange of profanities between a couple of fans evolved into a punch-up. The players were not immune from the unpleasantness as Kabasele came over to applaud the crowd and was subjected to a volley of abuse that clearly upset him. Holebas was on the end of the same treatment and looked furious, with Ben Watson pushing him away from his abusers. As poor as the performance on the pitch had been, this was disgraceful behaviour from some in the Watford crowd and must have made Gracia think twice about the “family feel” that he said pre-game he had experienced at Watford.
More than one person mentioned yesterday that I usually find something positive to say about games. Sadly, I cannot find anything good to say about that game either on or off the pitch. But I will be off to Stoke on Wednesday, more in hope than expectation of a win, but very hopeful that the travelling fans will get behind their team instead of spending most of the ninety minutes abusing them.