Tag Archives: Ciaran Clark

Gorgeous Goals Brighten a Poor Game

The impeccable Ben Wilmot

When the draw for the fourth round was made and we were paired with either Blackburn or Newcastle, the waiting game started.  Train tickets could not be bought until we knew where we would be playing.  Also, as the match tickets were going on sale the morning after the replay, I had the task of drawing up two lists of attendees dependent on the outcome.  There were more takers for Blackburn, even though the consensus was that they would be a tougher opponent than Newcastle.  But Newcastle it was (again).

I left London bright and early and found myself on the same train as a fellow member of WML who I had notified of the pre-match pub, so I met up with him to ensure that he found it with no difficulties.  When we arrived, a couple of our party were already at the bar and had grabbed a table in the little enclosed area.  A well-dressed older couple then arrived and sat down to do their crossword.  This was shortly before a large contingent of Happy Valley and North West Horns descended and ruined their peace.  To be fair to them they took being surrounded by football fans in their stride and the crossword was duly completed.

Masina preparing for a corner

Team news was that Gracia had made wholesale changes, although this was hardly a second string as it did include the return of Cathcart and Hughes from injury as well as a number of others who have featured in the league this season.  So, the starting XI was Gomes; Janmaat, Cathcart, Britos, Masina; Quina, Wilmot, Chalobah; Success, Gray, Hughes.  We had been aware of the inclusion of Wilmot before the team was announced as his grandparents had bumped into Mike outside the pub.  Criticism by both pundits and fans of Watford’s changes ignored the fact that Newcastle, who have both a weaker team and squad than us, had made 7 changes of their own.  While I fully agree that we should be making every effort to advance in the cup, my feeling was that this was a team that had enough quality to beat Newcastle and I was very much looking forward to seeing more from Quina and Wilmot.

When we arrived at the away end turnstiles, the woman performing the search asked if I would be using the lift.  I wasn’t sure whether it was my heavy rucksack or my advancing age and girth that prompted the question, but assured her that I would take the stairs.  She then commented that she always takes the lift, so I decided not to take offence.  As we scaled the 14 flights, I was chatting to a friend, so lost track of our progress and was just wondering whether to stop for a much needed breather when I saw the top floor appear so soldiered on.  It always feels like an accomplishment to arrive at the top without the use of supplemental oxygen.  As we took our place in the stand, it was clear that there were plenty of empty seats in both the home and away ends.  Our allocation of 6000 was never going to be filled, but the temptation of £10 tickets had not attracted a huge home following either.

Quina on the ball

Watford made a very bright start with a brilliant shot from distance from Quina which needed a decent save from Woodman in the Newcastle goal to keep it out.  The next chance of note came from a free kick just outside the area which Chalobah hit just over the bar.  From that point, there was nothing worth retrieving my notebook for until the 23rd minute when Janmaat hit a terrible shot that was way off target.  Pete reckoned that his playing badly was a deliberate ploy to stop the home fans booing him.  Watford had a great chance to open the scoring when Quina played a lovely pass to Hughes, who slipped a through ball into the path of Gray but the shot was wide of the target, although it wouldn’t have counted as the offside flag was up.  Newcastle had offered little going forward and an attempt at a break by Murphy was stopped by a very good tackle from Britos.  And that was it for the first half.  The announcer on the pitch introducing the half-time competition summed it up when he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, if any of you are still awake …..”

Gray being congratulated on his goal

There was also a bright start to the second half as Hughes played a ball over the top for Gray to run on to, he broke clear of the defence but shot high and wide when he should at least have tested Woodman.  Success, who was having a frustrating afternoon, then lost out to a defender and clearly felt as though he had been manhandled (he hadn’t) so collapsed dramatically in the box and then had to get up and get on with it when it was clear that nobody cared.  It was as well that I was in the top stand half a mile from the pitch at that point as I was tempted to give him a slap.  Another chance went begging after some nice play around the edge of the Newcastle box finished with the ball with Gray who ran into a couple of defenders and lost the ball.  The first booking of the game went to Wilmot for a foul on Joselu.  The breakthrough for the Hornets came just after the hour mark as Hughes played a gorgeous through ball to Gray who finished past Woodman and continued his run to celebrate in front of the Watford fans up in the gods.  Peñaranda had been readied to come on, presumably for Gray, just before the goal.  He immediately put his bib back on.  Watford’s second booking went to Chalobah for a foul on Kenedy.  The home side should have equalized when Manquillo went on a decent run, Gomes came out to meet him but failed to stop the shot, however the impeccable Wilmot was on hand to head the ball off the line.

Success celebrating his goal in the distance

Gracia made his first change on 68 minutes finally bringing Peñaranda on for Gray.  Soon after, Chalobah broke forward but, with options to either side, played a through ball to where Gray would have been had he not been substituted a couple of minutes earlier.  Benitez made a double substitution bringing Pérez and Atsu on for Murphy and Ritchie.  The decision to replace Ritchie was greeted with loud boos from the home fans.  Britos was then booked for a foul on Pérez.  Each side made a final substitution with Schär replacing Fernandez for the home side and Chalobah making way for Capoue for the Hornets.  Newcastle had a chance to grab an equaliser in the final minutes of normal time when a defensive header fell to Pérez on the edge of the box from where he shot over the target.  The home side attacked again but a cross from Atsu was easily gathered by Gomes.  Watford made certain of their place in the fifth round with a lovely goal that started with Peñaranda playing the ball out to Quina, his cross found Success in space in the box to finish from close range and make me feel ever so slightly guilty for moaning about him all afternoon.  The home side had a chance to grab a consolation as Joselu crossed for Pérez, but his shot missed the target and the final whistle went on a comfortable win for the Hornets.

Chalobah getting back to his best

The heavens had opened towards the end of the second half, so we were absolutely drenched by the time that we reached the pub at the station.  As we sat down with our drinks for the post-match analysis, the most astute observation was that it appeared that two moments of quality from a different match had been inserted into a dreadful game.  The best cup ties are blood and thunder games where all of the players appear desperate to win.  This was certainly not one of those, but Watford had done enough to deserve the win and there had certainly been some bright points.  As he has been in every performance so far, Quina was a joy to watch.  He plays with a confidence that belies his years, has a wonderful touch and a brilliant eye for a pass.  I found myself almost purring with delight every time he got the ball.  Wilmot again showed what a great prospect he is.  He started the game playing in a defensive midfield position but later moved into the centre of defence allowing Masina to play further forward.  In both roles, he was composed and appeared totally in control of his surroundings.  He really does look like a young Cathcart and having two of them in the squad is something to treasure.  Of the players returning to first team action, Britos put in a decent shift in the defence and Chalobah put in the best performance that we have seen since his return.  He looked far more comfortable and performed the midfield fulcrum role with some assurance.  That was very pleasing to see.

While the game won’t last long in the memory, it does mean that we are in the fifth round of the cup and, with many of the top teams already out of the competition, this seems like a great opportunity to advance.  I would love a trip to Newport or Barnet/Brentford in the next round.  I just hope that we don’t draw another Premier League team.

While on the way home, I received a message from Pete F that just said “Lucky sea shells.”  I confess that having bought a new coat last weekend, I was superstitious enough to ensure that my shell was transferred and was gratified when Pete B showed that he had also brought his.  Those shells deserve a cup run, I hope that those making the draw agree.

Great Performances on and off the Pitch

With Mapps and Will Hughes at the Quiz Night

Thursday evening was the annual quiz night at the club.  My team’s chance of winning was always remote and made even more so when we found that, in addition to the “professional” team who have no connection to the club who turn up every year to be booed as they receive their trophy from a couple of footballers they have never heard of, another team featured Shaun Wallace from the Chase.  I consoled myself by congratulating Will Hughes on his wonderful performance against West Ham and having a long chat with Adrian Mariappa, who told us that Marco Silva reminds him of …. Sean Dyche.

When I booked the train to Newcastle, I was rather surprised to see that the journey time was four hours.  This meant an early start, so I found myself leaving King’s Cross just before 8am.  The train was slightly delayed, so the pub was already open and surprisingly busy, when I arrived but, thankfully, the advance party had secured seats and we were soon joined by the Happy Valley Horns.  There was also a special guest appearance from the lovely Katy, someone that I have “known” for years due to social media connections but have never met before.  It was lovely finally to meet her in person.  As it was her first live game of the season, I hoped that the lads would turn it on for her.

The view from the gods

For the walk to the ground, we took a slightly different route than usual, which took us around the city walls, just gorgeous. Every time that I visit Newcastle I am reminded what a beautiful city it is.  The walk to St James’s Park is all uphill, but that is just the appetiser before the trek up to Level 7.  As we climbed, there were posters warning about the dangers and penalties for pyrotechnics.  One dire warning suggested that you could end up in A&E.  I was concerned that the walk to the gods was more likely to send me there.

Team news was that Femenía had recovered from his injury, so Silva named an unchanged side from the West Ham game.  The starting line-up was Gomes; Mariappa, Kabasele, Britos; Femenía, Cleverley, Doucouré, Zeegelaar; Hughes, Richarlison; Gray.

The home side had the first chance of the game as Murphy put a dangerous cross into the box, but the terrible miss-hit by Joselu was a sign of how their day would go.  Watford’s first chance came from a corner, Hughes played it back across goal to Mariappa, whose overhead kick was blocked.  At the other end, Ritchie finished a run with a shot that was wide of the near post and into the side netting.

Zeegelaar and Hughes congratulated after the first goal

Some lovely interplay from the visitors finished with a shot from distance from Hughes that cleared the bar.  The youngster was in action in our box soon after, putting in a crucial tackle to prevent a shot, this allowed the Hornets to launch a counter attack that resulted in a through ball to Richarlison whose shot was tipped wide by Elliot.  The first booking of the afternoon went to Shelvey for a tackle from behind on Britos.  The Hornets took the lead on 19 minutes.  Kabasele played a gorgeous cross-field ball to Zeegelaar, who crossed back for Hughes to fire past Elliot for his second goal in as many games.  Watford should have scored a second soon after as Zeegelaar crossed again, this time for Doucouré, who turned the ball just wide.  A dangerous looking break from Newcastle was stopped when Kabasele made a superb block to stop the shot from Joselu.  The first caution for Watford came as Zeegelaar was cautioned for taking Ritchie down.  The Hornets had a great chance to increase their lead on the half hour as a series of shots were blocked in the box, but nobody was able to test Elliot.  Gomes was called into action just after the half hour as he came to punch a cross into the box.  Then Joselu tried a shot from an angle that Gomes saved.  The home side had a strong finish to the half, but Watford went in at the break two goals ahead as Zeegelaar broke and hit a cross that was turned into his own net by Yedlin.

Richarlison congratulates Zeegelaar on the second goal

The travelling Hornets were all smiles at half-time.  It had been an entertaining half of football and, after Newcastle had a decent late spell in the half, the second goal had calmed a lot of nerves and we felt confident of getting a result.

Watford should have scored a third at the beginning of the second half as Gray went on a wonderful run into the box but, with the goal at his mercy, he managed to fire wide.  He had a chance to redeem himself soon after, exchanging passes with Hughes before taking his chance, but the shot was blocked.  The ball found its way to Richarlison on the edge of the area, but his shot flew wide.  Watford’s first substitution saw Prödl coming on for Britos, who was limping.  Another great chance went begging as Richarlison broke into the box and should have buried it, but hesitated before shooting, allowing the defender to get into position to make the block, the follow-up from Hughes was also blocked.  There was a decent chance at the other end as Murphy met a cross from Yedlin, but the header was poor and flew wide of the target.  Watford attacked yet again through Zeegelaar, who had the freedom of the left wing, he crossed for Gray but the header was over the bar.

Gray celebrating his goal

The former Burnley man got his goal just after the hour mark as Richarlison broke forward and crossed for Gray to poke it past Elliot from close range.  Newcastle hadn’t given up and should have pulled one back as Joselu slid in to shoot, but Gomes got a hand to the ball to keep it out.  Benitez made his first substitutions bringing Merino and Mitrovic on for Diame and Joselu.  Mitrovic tried to make an early impression as he broke into the box but the shot was poor and Gomes was down to make an easy save.  There was a change for each side with just over 10 minutes to go as Pérez replaced Murphy for the home side and Pereyra came on for Richarlison for the visitors.   Pérez had a chance to pull one back for the Magpies, but his shot from just inside the box was over the bar.  Gray could have made it four for the Hornets after he was released by Prödl, he had only the keeper to beat, but passed it into Elliot’s arms.  Silva made a final change bringing Carrillo on for Hughes, who went off to a huge ovation from the fans up in the gods, which he acknowledged, so we knew the players could hear us.  Newcastle had another attempt to spare their blushes, but Kabasele did brilliantly to block the shot from Mitrovic.  Watford had one last chance to score a fourth, but their swift counter attack finished with Cleverley shooting over from distance.  There was only time for Prödl to be booked for a robust (and unnecessary) tackle on Mitrovic and the final whistle went on a convincing win for the Hornets.  To add insult to injury, the big screen was displaying the winning ticket in the Match day draw with a code that started with WFC.

We were all smiles in the away stand.  It had been a convincing win against a team that we have to consider to be rivals.  There were some outstanding performances.  Will Hughes impressed again, as did Zeegelaar and Kabasele.

Ricarlison on the ball

As I waited at the station for the train home, Miles Jacobson appeared and kindly kept me company for the journey home.  Our first encounter was with a disappointed Newcastle fan who observed, “You had a good day, bonny lass.”  I have always loved Geordies.  Then our neighbours on the train were a father and son, who I recognised from away trips, who were having a joint birthday celebration.  My comment that we had been fantastic was met with some scepticism and a discussion of the negatives from the performance, which gave me pause for thought.  It is true that Gray looks like he lacks a bit of confidence, he was terribly wasteful in front of goal and really should have had a hat-trick, but he still managed to get on the scoresheet.  Richarlison didn’t have the best of games, but he provided an assist and the attention that the Newcastle defence paid to him certainly contributed to Zeegelaar having a tremendous amount of space to play in to provide the assists for the other goals.  Despite the concerns, we all agreed that being able to win convincingly when not at our best has to be a good thing.

The icing on the cake was the news (first heard from Don Fraser) that one of the supporters’ coaches had broken down in the Derby area on the way to the game and the fans had been transported to Newcastle in taxis at the club’s expense.  Well done to Watford for that.   It is good to see that for our club, the fans matter after all.  These really are the good old days.

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.