Although I tend to make the most of my Summer break from football, it is always good when pre-season comes around. Unusually, the first games for the first team were on the pre-season tour, which I didn’t make this year due to work commitments that also prevented me from making the trips to Welling and Hemel to see the U23s. So my first chance to see the lads was to be the trip to Stevenage.
Oddly, Watford had arranged two games in two days that both appeared on the first team page, so a lot of fans stayed away on Friday night thinking that it would be a run out for the U23s. My attendance was also looking a little in doubt as technical difficulties meant that the 4pm meeting at work started 15 minutes late. That and disruption on the East Coast line had me a little nervous about making it, but I arrived at King’s Cross in time for the planned train which was running on time, so I was in the pub not long after 6 enjoying my first pre-match pint of the season.
After the heatwave, most of which I have spent stuck indoors (partly through choice), there was an irony in the fact that my return to football watching coincided with a thunderstorm. It started rather gently, so we decided to stay outside in the beer garden but were persuaded to take shelter when the forked lightning appeared. The walk to the ground was in a downpour, but after the oppressive heat that we have had, the soaking was rather lovely.
Team news was that Gracia had picked a very strong first XI which would give us a chance to see some new faces as the starting line-up was Gomes; Navarro, Prödl, Mariappa, Masina; Hughes, Rodwell, Wilmot, Sema; Jakubiak, Deeney. Pete and I had turned up wearing the lovely new green away kit. Mine had arrived by special delivery the week before in a presentation box with a letter from Troy thanking me for attending all 19 away games last season. A really lovely gesture from the club that made me feel appreciated after turning up on a Wednesday night in Stoke. We had assumed that it would get a run out, especially when we saw the officials warming up in yellow kits, but the lads emerged from the tunnel wearing the home stripes to confound us.
Watford started the game very brightly with Wilmot almost opening the scoring against his old club after some good work from Sema on the wing, but his shot was just wide of the target. The Stevenage goalkeeper, Farman, then pulled off an excellent flying save to keep out a shot from Hughes. From the resulting corner, Farman again did very well to save a header from Prödl. Watford continued to dominate without creating much in front of goal until near the half hour mark when Jakubiak found the side netting. Hughes was the next to threaten the Stevenage goal, but Farman pulled off another decent save and was then out to frustrate Jakubiak as he bore down on goal. The home side didn’t test Gomes until just before half time when Nugent rose to meet a free kick with a powerful header that the Brazilian stopper did well to keep out.
So we reached half time goalless, but it had been a decent showing from the Hornets who had been unlucky to find the Stevenage keeper in top form. At the other end of the pitch, it was pleasing to see that Gomes was being shown a lot of love by the Watford fans who had made the journey.
At half time, Gracia must have been alone in the dressing room as all the substitutes appeared to be warming up and the first half team warming down, but there were actually no changes for the Hornets at the break.
Stevenage were much the brighter team at the start of the second half and had a great chance to take the lead with a header from Revell, but Gomes did brilliantly to keep it out. On the hour mark, Gracia made nine changes bringing Janmaat, Britos, Cathcart, Holebas, Charles, Capoue, Pereyra, Success and Gray on to join Hughes and Gomes, who would play the entire 90 minutes. The Hornets got back on top after the substitutions and should have opened the scoring when Pereyra unleashing a lovely curling shot, but Farman was again equal to it. Just as it seemed that the night would end goalless, Farman made his first mistake of the evening allowing Pereyra to cross for Gray to head home from close range and the Hornets left Stevenage with a slightly fortunate win.
It was a game of two halves. The first half had been all Watford with some lively play that should have given us a comfortable lead, if it wasn’t for the performance of the keeper. The second half was less convincing, but improved after the substitutions. I liked the look of the new players although I have yet to put a name to most of them. One bizarre aspect of the evening was the involvement of Kabasele, who took no part in the game but was doing timed sprints on the sidelines. I swear he ran as far as some of those who actually played.
After a restful night’s sleep, I had a Saturday lunchtime trip to West London to see the Hornets play at Brentford. In contrast to the previous evening, we found ourselves sitting in a pub garden in blazing sunshine. Our choice of pre-match establishment wasn’t one of the four on the corners of the ground, but it was rather lovely, if very partisan, with the staff wearing Brentford shirts and flags up all around. I wondered whether it was a good omen when one of the flags fell off the door. Oh the straws we clutch on to as fans.
Pete and I thought we had left in plenty of time to get to the ground for kick-off and there wasn’t much of a queue outside, but it took an age to get through the turnstiles as, instead of just taking your tenner, they then grabbed a ticket which was scanned and the counterfoil torn off before you were permitted into the ground. With the choice of sitting or standing, we opted for the terraces and took our place at a crush barrier behind the goal.
As was expected most of the starting XI were those that had played the last half hour at Stevenage. So the line-up was Foster (GK); Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos, Holebas; Pereyra, Charles, Capoue (C), Sema; Success, Gray. Foster was given a tremendous welcome by the Watford fans with chants of “Foster’s coming home.” My main concern with the line-up was that Kabasele would be worn out after the workout that he was given on the sideline the night before.
Pete and I had persisted with wearing our green shirts so were happy to see the team were also resplendent in the emerald. Unfortunately, it had taken so long to get through the turnstiles that we missed kick-off, but arrived on the terrace behind the goal in time to see Foster parry a free-kick from Marcondes, it dropped to Watkins who finished to give the Bees an early lead. Watford had a chance to break back almost immediately, but Success undid the good work of his run by shooting straight at Bentley in the Brentford goal.
There was a better chance for Pereyra whose cheeky flick bounced off the top of the crossbar. Gray then had a decent shot that just cleared the bar. The opening goal came on 25 minutes as Pereyra tried a shot, the keeper was equal to it but Dalsgaard mishit his clearance which found the net to draw the visitors level. Ten minutes later, the Hornets took the lead as Gray finished from the edge of the area. I am ashamed to say that I missed the goal as the substitutes were walking in front of the away terrace and I was distracted by how blond Prödl seems to have gone this Summer! I sensed I wasn’t the only one to miss the goal as there soon followed a chant from the kids to the right of me of “Let’s pretend that we have scored.” The Hornets had a chance to increase their lead before half time, but this time Gray’s shot was just over the bar.
At half-time Masina replaced Holebas then, on the hour, Gracia made wholesale changes bringing Navarro, Prödl, Rodwell, Wilmot, Mariappa, Deeney and Jakubiak on to replace Janmaat, Kabasele, Britos, Charles, Capoue, Sema and Gray. Soon after the substitutions, Success had a great chance to increase the lead for the Hornets but, as too often, a tremendous run finished with a terrible shot. Watkins had a couple of chances to restore parity for the home side, first with a shot across goal and then with a long range shot that was caught by Foster. The Hornets had the ball in the net on two more occasions, once from a Pereyra header, and then a shot from Deeney who got ahead of the defence before poking home, but both were adjudged to be offside, so the game finished with a narrow win for the visitors.
It had been a typical pre-season game. A run out that gave few clues to what we can expect for the rest of the season, but it was an enjoyable enough afternoon. Bizarrely, the atmosphere in the away end was livelier than I am used to at pre-season games, although the chanting was dominated by anti-Luton songs, being delivered by kids who, if I am any judge of ages, are too young ever to have seen Watford play them up the road.
Post-match it was back to one of the pubs on the corner to confirm that none of us was any the wiser, but the beer was good. Some wonder why we bother with pre-season games. Personally, I enjoy getting back in the swing of things with the chance to see the new players or the new hair cuts on the old players and to have an afternoon out with friends knowing that the result won’t make much difference to the enjoyment of the day.