Having had to work on a planned day off last week, I decided to recoup some of that time by leaving early for the game. On checking into the hotel in Watford, the manager commented on my scarf, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was a match in town that evening. The bar man, a fellow Hornet, joined in the conversation and said that he was sacrificing this game in order to be able to go to the semi-final. It seemed like the right choice to me. We had a chat about our prospects at Wembley and then I headed to the West Herts. I arrived to see that Don’s car wasn’t in its usual place, which caused me a momentary panic, until I saw him sitting in his usual place inside. Some interloper was in his space when he arrived. Poor show indeed. I settled down with a pint and to anticipate the evening ahead. This was an odd prospect as, playing struggling Fulham, it should have been a game to enjoy, but every moment would be analysed with Sunday in mind.
On the walk along Vicarage Road, we found ourselves among Fulham fans who, given that a defeat would relegate them, were chanting, “The Whites are going down … and now you’re gonna believe us.”
Pre-match speculation was that certain key players would be rested, possibly to be brought on during the game if needed. Needless to say, Gracia did the unexpected with the four changes from Saturday being the entire back four reverting to what most would consider to be our first choice. So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenia, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Doucouré, Capoue, Hughes, Pereyra; Deulofeu, Deeney. I had everything crossed that there would be no injuries.
As it is the 25th anniversary of the formation of Kick it Out, tonight was Watford’s game dedicated to the cause and the “No room for racism” message was all over the hoardings. Sadly, recent events show that this message is needed now more than ever.
The first chance of the game went to the visitors as Mitrović got his head to a cross and diverted it wide of the target. At this point, the Fulham fans were in very good voice indeed. The first chance for the Hornets came on 15 minutes as Pereyra tricked his way into the box, but his shot was blocked. The visitors had a great chance to take the lead as Babel played a lovely ball over to Sessegnon in the box, but the Fulham youngster was unable to connect. Some rushed play from the Hornets allowed the ball to reach Mitrović whose shot was easily gathered by Foster. Watford then had a great chance to break the deadlock as Femenía broke forward before crossing for Deeney but the header was wide of the near post. The Hornets took a somewhat undeserved lead on 23 minutes as Doucouré picked up the ball, ran to the edge of the box and hit a sweet strike into the near corner of the Fulham net.
The next action of note came 10 minutes later and was an equaliser for the visitors as Sessegnon found Babel who rounded the onrushing Foster to score. It was frustrating, but no more than the visitors deserved. The Fulham faithful greeted the goal with “We are staying up” followed by “We’ve f*cking scored”. Fair play to them. This was greeted with a round of applause from the Rookery, as we’ve all been there. The visitors threatened again as a bit of head tennis in the Watford box led to the ball falling to Babel whose shot was blocked. Sessegnon had a great chance to grab the lead after a break, but his shot was easy for Foster. The visitors looked sure to take the lead after Deulofeu overplayed and gave the ball away allowing them to break but, when he looked sure to score, Mitrović totally mishit his shot which flew high and well wide of the near post. The first booking of the game came late in the half as Mariappa was booked for a foul on Mitrović. The half time whistle was greeted with boos from some Watford supporters. Granted it had been a poor half of football from the Hornets, but all of our minds were on the semi-final on Sunday, so it was a ridiculous reaction.
The half time guest was Marco Cassetti, who immediately apologised for giving away the penalty in the play-off final against Palace. There was another penalty that he didn’t need to apologise for, given what it led to. Knockaert’s dive was shown from multiple angles before we got to enjoy the terrific goal from the play-off semi-final. He said what a great memory that was and how it makes him smile. He seemed a bit baffled when the conversation turned to the subject of his beard. It was lovely to see him back to hear how much he enjoyed his time with us.
Gracia made a double substitution at the break bringing Janmaat and Gray on for Pereyra and Deulofeu.
Janmaat’s first contribution was to earn a booking for a foul on Cairney. Watford had an early chance to regain the lead when a cross from Holebas was headed on towards his own goal by Chambers and Rico had to stretch to tip it over and save his teammate’s blushes. Holebas caused more problems for the Fulham defence, winning a free kick that he took himself which had to be punched clear by Rico. A lovely exchange of passes between Janmaat and Gray ended with the Dutchman bearing down on goal, but Rico came out to smother the ball and was injured in the process. Babel came to complain to the referee, trying to get Janmaat booked, which seemed harsh as he had every right to go for the ball. Doucouré had a chance to grab a second goal, but took too long to take the shot and it was blocked. Gray was the next Watford player to try his luck, but his shot from distance deflected wide. My neighbour in the Rookery had been nervously bemoaning the fact that the players were acting as though they had already won the game. His nerves were eased somewhat when a corner was headed clear to Hughes who belted a volley past Rico from outside the box. It was a terrific goal and very welcome. Fulham had a half chance to break back as an awkward header from Mitrović had to be tipped over the bar by Foster.
On 69 minutes, Watford made the scoreline a bit more comfortable as Gray broke forward before cutting the ball back for Deeney to score Watford’s third of the evening. It may have been Deeney who applied the finishing touch, but the crowd was chanting “Olé, Andre.” Harry the Hornet’s goal celebration was a little too enthusiastic and led to some repairs being needed for the corner flag. At this point, the visitors made their first substitution replacing Ream with Seri. Watford could have increased their lead as Doucouré found Holebas whose shot was pushed around the post by the keeper. I swear that, as he walked in front of the Rookery to take the corner, Jose was smiling. With 15 minutes remaining, Gray turned provider again, this time for Femenía, who scored Watford’s fourth and surely confirmed Fulham’s relegation. Despite the comfortable lead, the home side continued to attack and Hughes got into a great position, but chose to tee up Gray whose shot was deflected wide. At this point, Gracia made his final substitution bringing Quina on for Capoue. Needless to say, every time the youngster got the ball there were shouts for him to shoot. The visitors had a chance to pull a goal back as Mitrović found Seri whose close range shot was stopped by a brilliant save from Foster. There was a second substitution for the visitors as Babel made way for Schürrle. Watford threatened again as a lovely cross from Janmaat was met by the head of Doucouré, but Rico was equal to the effort. Scott Parker made a final change with McDonald coming on for Cairney. Gray had another chance to add a goal to his assists, but the keeper was down to make the save. As the clock reached 90 minutes, Holebas earned his inevitable booking. I am not sure whether it was for the foul on Sessegnon or his reaction to being penalised, but he risked further censure by refusing to speak to the referee. Eventually Deeney had to take him over and make the peace.
The full time whistle went to terrific celebrations from the Watford faithful. It was a testament to his contribution after coming on that Gray was named the man of the Match, a decision that went down well with the home crowd. At the other end of the ground, a banner announcing “Fulham Relegation Party” was being waved. I must admit to some regret at our relegating Fulham as it is a club that I like and I love going to Craven Cottage, but the win was needed both to keep up our fight for seventh place and to give us some momentum before the FA Cup semi-final on Sunday.
It was an odd game. After a poor performance in the first half that seemed to result from the players not wanting to get hurt, they went for it in the second half and we were royally entertained. Gray was everywhere, with the two assists and plenty of chances to score himself. It was a very positive performance indeed. At the same time Wolves were beating Man Utd, so also going in to the weekend on a positive note. Sunday will be a very interesting game. Two evenly matched teams who both play decent football. It should be entertaining, whatever the result. But I am really hoping that it is a repeat of our performance at Molineux, which was superb. I am also hoping to get at least a few hours sleep between now and the game, but that is not guaranteed.
We have to be loud and proud on Sunday. This is our best chance of reaching a cup final since 1984 and I would love my youngest sister and nieces to experience that as Rose and I did all those years ago. These are the days that we dream about. They should be savoured and I, for one, with endeavour to enjoy every minute.