Tag Archives: Costel Pantilimon

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.”

 

A Dismal Afternoon at the Den

Ben Watson leading the team out at the Den

Ben Watson leading the team out at the Den

When this game was moved for television, the potential for a good sized crowd immediately disappeared.  It is an easy enough journey from Watford, but a midday kick-off on a Sunday in January is enough to make most people opt for the sofa.  So I was delighted (and not a little proud) when my niece said she would join us.  Especially as it wasn’t even a new ground for her.

I had been pleased to hear the announcement earlier in the week that the controversial compulsory purchase order by Lewisham Council relating to land around the New Den that would have threatened Millwall’s future residence had been abandoned.  So it was rather sad to go there and see the stands so sparsely populated.

Before the game, Mazzarri had been reported as saying that he would make 11 changes if he could.  In fact, he made 7, a great chance for some of the fringe players to make a case for more game time.  The starting line-up was Pantilimon; Kaboul, Mariappa, Britos; Djédjé, Doucouré, Watson, Guedioura, Mason; Okaka and Sinclair.  I was pleased to see Watson back in the team, as well as Mariappa making his second debut.  The tannoy announcer decided to make a big deal of the fact that he would struggle with all the foreign names in the Watford team, although pretending to struggle with Costel Pantilimon was rather lame.  This, and a repeated request for the lads to bring their ladies to the Den on Valentines Day, felt like a throwback to the 80s.

Mason and Onyedinma tangle

Mason and Onyedinma tangle

Before kick-off, there was some discussion among our party of the 6-1 win, which it is hard to believe was in 2010.  I missed that game due to a work trip to Tokyo (I’m still seething).  The pessimist in me couldn’t help but say that we wouldn’t get a similar result.

The Hornets took the kick-off, but almost immediately Millwall launched a counter-attack through Morison whose cross was met with a strike from Gregory that, thankfully, rebounded off the crossbar.  The fear at this point was that 6-1 was a possibility, but that it would favour the home side.  This fear grew as a corner was headed off the line by Mariappa.  Then a shot from Craig took a nasty deflection causing Pantilimon to have to tip it over the bar.  The resulting corner was headed just wide by Cooper.  The first goal attempt from the visitors didn’t come until the 16th minute with a shot from distance from Guedioura that flew well wide.  The Algerian came closer soon after with a free-kick that took a slight deflection before hitting the outside of the post.  Okaka was having a torrid afternoon, going down far too easily under challenges by players he should have been able to shrug off.  The home crowd decided to join in the persecution with a chant of “You’re just a fat Danny Shittu!”  Sinclair should have done better after breaking into the box, but fell over as he attempted to shoot, his pleas for a penalty were waved away.

Gones takes a goal kick

Gones takes a goal kick

With 10 minutes of the half remaining there was a mix up as Britos played the ball back to Pantilimon, Gregory nipped in and, in the scramble to clear, the keeper was injured and Mariappa’s intervention had the home crowd screaming for a penalty for handball.  The Millwall fans lived up to their vile reputation chanting ‘let him die’ as the clearly injured Pantilimon was helped on to a stretcher.  Gomes took his place in goal and was called into action almost immediately to stop a shot from Gregory.  From the corner, Morison headed goalwards, but Guedioura was on hand to head the ball off the line.

It had been a frustrating first half.  The visitors had the bulk of the play but failed to test Archer in the Millwall goal.  The Watford players were spending far too much time passing the ball around, while Millwall launched pacy counter attacks and actually looked like scoring.

The home side started the second half in a similar manner to the first with a shot from Gregory that just cleared the bar.  At the other end there was a decent chance as a cross from Djédjé was diverted goalwards by Cooper, but Archer made the save.

Okaka knocked off the ball

Okaka struggling with the Millwall approach

Watford had another chance when Mason crossed from the opposite wing, but Okaka just failed to connect.  The Italian then felt that he was pulled back as he challenged for a cross from Guedioura and complained loudly to the referee or anyone else who would listen.  By this point, he should have worked out that he was going to have to fight his own battles as the referee wasn’t going to help him.  In the build-up Djédjé had gone down injured and the Millwall fans continued their charm offensive cheering as a stretcher was brought on to the pitch.  Thankfully it wasn’t needed and nor was Janmaat who had readied to come on.  From a Kaboul cross, Okaka again appeared to be held down allowing the keeper to punch clear.  Half way through the second period, Djédjé did make way for Janmaat.  He hadn’t had the best of games, so it was to be hoped that the Dutchman would provide more of an attacking threat.  An attempt by Sinclair to break into the box was stopped by an excellent tackle on the edge of the area.  Jerome was replaced soon after by Deeney, whose name had been sung with some enthusiasm as he warmed up.  Troy was involved almost immediately as he headed a ball from Watson goalwards, but it was a fairly easy catch for Archer.  Mason then went flying into a tackle and was lucky only to see a yellow card.  Then a bit of pinball in the area finished with a save from Gomes.

The return of Mariappa

The return of Mariappa

Just as we were contemplating a replay at Vicarage Road, a cross reached Morison in the box and he finished through the legs of Gomes.  The home side were celebrating a second soon after as a corner was bundled home by Wallace, but it was ruled out for handball.  The home side had one final attempt to finish the game as Wallace tried a shot from distance, but Gomes was equal to it.  There was a flurry of activity as the visitors tried to equalize, first through a header from Deeney that was caught by Archer.  Then, in time added on, Troy looked sure to score with only the keeper to beat, but a last ditch intervention from Webster allowed him to block the shot and the Hornets were out of the cup.

The final whistle was met with loud boos from the travelling fans.  It had been a shocking performance mostly due to a distinct lack of effort.  Despite having the majority share of possession, they had managed only a single shot on target.  The players drafted in had not impressed.  Okaka couldn’t cope with the physical attentions of the Millwall players which, for a man of his stature, is just shocking.  Sinclair was anonymous and Djédjé offered little.  Guedioura put in more effort than most, but his execution was found wanting.  Watson, Mason and Mariappa were the only ‘fringe’ players that didn’t let themselves down.  It wasn’t until Deeney came on that Watford really threatened the Millwall goal.  Given the quality of the team that was selected, that is just unacceptable.  The action that summed up the afternoon for me was when a Millwall attack broke down with many of their players committed forward.  Instead of immediately breaking downfield, the Watford players decided to play the ball about between themselves giving the opposition plenty of time to regroup.  Having watched Millwall threaten on the counter all afternoon, you do have to wonder.

Next up a trip to Arsenal on Tuesday.  I’m dreading it.

Saying Goodbye to Our Hero

Don & I with Graham & Rita

Don & I with Graham & Rita

The first time I ‘met’ Graham Taylor was one Summer in the early 80s.  I had heard that the Hornets trained at Shendish, which was a short walk across the fields from our house.  We headed over there a couple of times, while walking the dog, before the golden day when we saw the Watford players streaming on to the training pitch.  We were awestruck.  As they played a training game, every time the ball rolled off the pitch towards her, my young sister would pick it up and hold it for one of the players to collect.  After she had done this a few times, GT gently said, “You can throw it, you know.”  She started doing that and the practice flowed more smoothly.  Then my attention switched to Nigel Callaghan who was practising his ball skills when our Border Collie decided to challenge him.  When I look back on that day, I am horrified.  We were a group of children disrupting their training session, and GT would have been totally justified in sending us packing, but he didn’t once make us feel as though we shouldn’t be there.  That was just one of a number of encounters that I have had over the years with Graham Taylor that have always left me walking on air and adoring the man.  When I heard about his death this week, I felt as though I had lost a favourite uncle and discussions with fellow fans and those throughout the football world who had been lucky enough to come into contact with him showed that my feelings were shared by many.

Suddenly Saturday’s game with Middlesbrough had taken on a great significance and the tickets that were unsold as of Thursday morning were soon snapped up.

Graham Taylor, We Love You

Graham Taylor, We Love You

As always on an important football day, I took some time choosing my outfit for the game.  I could not find my “Golden Boy Forever” t-shirt, but did find “Elton John’s Taylor-made Champions” from 97-98.  I also took my Cup Final replica shirt to wear in the ground so that both eras were covered.

I left home earlier than usual so that I could get to the Hornet Shop to sign the book of condolence before the crowds descended.  On the train journey, I listened (again) to the 5Live tribute show.  The outpouring of love was just remarkable and it was wonderful to know that it wasn’t just Watford fans that loved the man so much.

As I walked along Market Street, I saw a friend coming in the opposite direction.  No words were exchanged as we met, just a heartfelt hug.  That would become a feature of the day.  I arrived at the ground at about 11:30 and took a while to admire the tributes that had already been left before joining the queue to sign the book.  It was lovely to see that the display in the windows of the club shop had been changed to feature shirts and tracksuits from GT’s time at the club.

There's only one Graham Taylor

There’s only one Graham Taylor

We took up residence at our usual table in the West Herts which soon filled up with the regulars and with some more occasional visitors, each arrived looking bereft and was greeted with warm hugs.  The build up to the Spurs v WBA game was being shown on the televisions and I was not taking much notice when suddenly I became aware of the sound of clapping.  I looked up to see Graham Taylor’s picture displayed on the screen at the ground and the players and crowd taking part in a minute’s applause.  All conversation in the bar ceased and you could have heard a pin drop until the referee’s whistle went on the television when we applauded the gesture and went back to our previous discussions.

I am usually guilty of getting to my seat just in time for Z-cars, but on this occasion, I wanted to be there early to pay my respects, particularly as Graham’s family would be in attendance, which I thought was incredibly brave given how recently they had lost him.  But, as Pete pointed out, “It’s what Graham would have done.”  As we got to the ground, the size of the crowds and the floral tributes had grown considerably since my earlier visit.  So many flowers and shirts with lovely messages and each of the bollards had Watford scarves tied around them.  Arriving inside the Rookery I saw yet another queue to sign the condolence book which brought tears to my eyes.

The tribute in the Rookery (many thanks to Sarah Priestley for the photo)

The tribute in the Rookery (many thanks to Sarah Priestley for the photo)

On the way through the concourse, I bumped into more and more friends, all in or on the verge of tears.  As we reached our seats, GT’s picture was on the big screen and “There’s only one Graham Taylor” was rolling across the electronic hoardings and being sung by the crowd.  Then I noticed other little details such as the black corner flags and that Harry Hornet was wearing the CTX shirt from the 97-98 season.  As we waited for kick-off, they were playing GT’s favourite songs and the big screen was showing highlights from past triumphs.  They then cut to show Rita, Joanne and Karen in the GT stand and I lost it completely.  Just before the teams came out, they played GT’s favourite song which is Buddy Holly’s “Raining in my Heart.”  If there was anybody in the ground who had kept it together until that point, I expect that finished them off.

As Z-cars was played and the teams came on to the pitch, the big screen was showing GT leading the team out at Wembley on cup final day.  The 1881 had arranged a foil display and as we held them up, I managed to catch a glimpse of the big screen.  The design GT on a yellow background was just perfect and those holding them were loudly singing “There’s only one Graham Taylor”.  The pre-match tribute continued as the foils were lowered and the legends flag was displayed in the centre of the Rookery.

The players lined up for the minute's applause

The players lined up for the minute’s applause

There had been some discussion before the game about whether a minute’s silence or applause was the most appropriate.  Tim Coombs closed the discussion with the statement that, at the family’s request, a minute’s applause would be held.  This had the benefit of allowing all in the ground to belt out “One Graham Taylor”, at least those who were capable of chanting through the tears.  It was wonderful to see that the Middlesbrough fans joined in with both the applause and the singing.

After all that, it was easy to forget that a game was taking place.  Team news was that Mazzarri had made five changes from the Burton game with Gomes, Prödl, Behrami, Holebas and Okaka coming in for Pantilimon, Cathcart, Mason, Sinclair and Ighalo.  So, the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Kabasele, Doucouré, Behrami, Capoue, Holebas; Deeney and Okaka.  Returning loan signing, Tom Cleverley was on the bench.

Capoue lines up a free kick

Capoue lines up a free kick

Watford had a great chance to open the scoring in the 9th minute as Capoue went on a run, a defender attempted a tackle but the ball rebounded in the direction of the goal, Etienne continued his run while the ball took an age to drop, sadly the Frenchman’s first touch was poor and Boro keeper, Valdés, had time to save at his feet.  At the other end, a ball into the box was headed down to Stuani who poked it home but, much to the relief of the Watford fans, the flag was up for offside, so it didn’t count.  The next action of note was on the 26th minute as Okaka nodded the ball down for Doucouré, whose lovely strike was blocked by Valdés.  Soon after, the same players combined again as Okaka broke forward and fed Doucouré whose shot was blocked, a cross back into the box was just missed by the head of Okaka.  The Italian launched another attack, beating two players before putting in a cross that Chambers cleared just before Deeney could connect.  The visitors threatened again as a ball was flicked into the Watford box and Stuani chipped over Gomes but, thankfully, also over the bar.  A guy near the front of the Rookery stood up to remonstrate with the Watford keeper who, to everyone’s surprise, gave the fan a piece of his mind.  Just before half time, some more good work from Okaka allowed Doucouré to try another shot but, again, it was just over the bar.

The former players at half time

The former players at half time

There were boos at the half time whistle.  It had been a poor half, although Watford had the better of the chances.

I felt very sorry for the children taking part in the half-time penalty shoot-out in front of the Rookery as all attention was on the former players gathered on the side of the pitch being interviewed by Tim and Emma.  Ian Bolton, Les Taylor, Nick Wright, Allan Smart, Tommy Mooney and Luther Blissett all spoke about the great man and, as he has done a number of times this week, it fell to Luther to pay the most perfect tribute, “He is the greatest man I’ve known.”

The second half started with a great chance for the Hornets, but Kabasele headed Capoue’s cross just wide of the near post.  The home side had another half chance as a free kick from Capoue was headed goalwards by Okaka, but Valdés dropped to make the save.  At the other end a Prödl clearance found Fabio who forced Gomes into a flying save.

Waiting for a ball into the box

Waiting for a ball into the box

Capoue should have opened the scoring with a lovely curling shot that was just wide of the far post.  On 65 minutes, Gomes had to be replaced after picking up an injury when he fell awkwardly making a save.  Pantilimon took the field to chants of “Mackem reject” from the Boro faithful.  At the same time, the visitors brought Gestede on to make his debut in place of De Roon.  The substitute keeper’s first test came from a free kick that he gathered safely.  At the other end, Deeney played the ball out to Kabasele whose cross was headed just wide by Doucouré.  At this point (the 72nd minute) another minute’s applause started with the accompanying chants for Graham Taylor, again the Boro fans joined in.  Watford’s next substitution saw Tom Cleverley making his second debut for Watford in place of Behrami.  The Watford fans were screaming for a penalty as Okaka battled with a defender in the box before being pulled to the ground.  Instead, the referee awarded a free kick to the visitors and showed Okaka a yellow card.  Boro substitute, Gestede, tried his luck from 25 yards, but his shot flew over the bar.  Watford’s substitute had a much better chance and we were already on our feet celebrating when Cleverley’s shot rebounded off the post, Capoue’s follow-up cleared the bar.  Nothing was going our way.

Kaboul and Okaka

Kaboul and Okaka

Deeney had a great chance in the last few minutes as he ran on to a lovely ball over the top from Cleverley, with only Valdés to beat, the keeper stuck his leg out and the shot deflected wide of the far post.  From the corner, Prödl headed goalwards, but Valdés was able to make the save.  Watford’s final substitution saw Zúñiga take the place of Holebas, who took an age to leave the field, much to the displeasure of the Watford fans.  Watford had one final chance from a corner in time added on, but Kabasele’s header was saved.  There was just time for some handbags as Fabio and Deeney clashed after Britos had been booked for a foul on the Middlesbrough man.  So a disappointing game ended goalless.

There were a number of complaints after the game, but we had a considerably improved second half and had made enough chances to have won the game easily.  There were a number of positives for me.  There had been some good signs from Okaka.  Doucouré had an excellent game playing as the box-to-box midfielder that we had been promised.  Capoue was much improved with some good deliveries from set pieces and a couple of decent chances himself.  Finally, it was nice to see Tom Cleverley back, he made some lovely touches and almost grabbed the winner.  Off the pitch, the fans had been magnificent, both the 1881 for the pre-match displays, which were remarkable given the short time that they had to organize them, and the fans as a whole for singing Graham Taylor’s name for most of the ninety minutes.  I hope that Rita and the rest of the family took a little comfort from the outpouring of love from the fans.

The tributes outside Vicarage Road

The tributes outside Vicarage Road

We left the ground through the stand named after the great man, taking the time to remember all his achievements that are commemorated there.  We then stopped outside the shop to admire all the tributes that had been left.  It was a beautiful display.

Back in the West Herts, the post-match analysis was soon replaced with talk of Graham Taylor.  Unusually, perhaps, there were no reminiscences about great games, but all the talk was about encounters with him and the legacy that he has left for the club and the town.  We went back to the 80s when football grounds were generally nasty places to be and yet families were flocking to Vicarage Road to watch football in safety on the family terrace that had been built after GT raised money for it by running the London marathon.  At away games, we watched football from inside cages, but there were never any fences separating the fans from the players at the Vic.  He had also refused to have a covered dugout built until the fans in the Vicarage Road end had a roof.  At a time when football fans were treated like criminals, Graham Taylor refused to take this stance.  He treated the fans as he would want to be treated and the fans responded in kind.  The football club was built in his image and was a wonderful warm place to be.

Many Watford fans have talked this week about how much influence Graham Taylor had on their lives.  He was a man of great kindness and integrity who was a great role model to us all.  As a fan meeting GT, he had an incredible knack of making you feel that it was his pleasure to be speaking you.  He built a football club that still retains the family ethos that he instilled.  Last week that club lost its father.  We will miss him terribly.

Beating Burton in the Cup

Cathcart, Capoue and Britos

Cathcart, Capoue and Britos

When the draw was made for the third round of the cup, there was a twinge of regret that we hadn’t been drawn away to Burton, as it would have been a new ground.  But a Saturday 3pm kick-off at Vicarage Road made a very pleasant change.  I arrived at the West Herts just before it opened, in time for the guvnor to open the interior door for Don, offer him his usual (tea with milk and two sugars) and have it delivered to the table before I’d ordered my pint.  These celebrities, don’t know they are born.

Team news for this game promised to be interesting.  Would Walter opt to put out an inexperienced team and rest the remaining first team players or would a better performance and (hopefully) a win be worth risking further injuries?  In the event, the only change that wasn’t enforced by injury or illness was the inclusion of Cathcart in place of Prödl (although it is likely that Pantilimon would have made an appearance even if Gomes had been well).  It was very pleasing to see Brandon Mason given a start after his substitute appearance against Spurs.  The starting line-up was Pantilimon; Kaboul, Cathcart, Britos; Kabasele, Capoue, Doucouré, Mason; Sinclair, Ighalo; Deeney.  Former Watford men, Lloyd Dyer and Lee Williamson started for visitors.  It was also great to see Ben Watson back on the Watford bench.

Celebrating Kabasele's goal (and Mason's assist)

Celebrating Kabasele’s goal (and Mason’s assist)

We had opted for a change of scene for this game, swapping our seats in the Rookery for a place in the SEJ stand.  Our seats were low down and right next to the Watford dugout, which was a little distracting while having the extra attraction of a good view of Nigel Clough (for whom I have had a very soft spot for many years).

Watford’s first attack of the game came through Mason who beat a defender on the wing to go on a run and put in a cross which was caught by the Burton keeper, McLaughlin.  Watford’s injury curse continued as, following a clash of heads with Britos, Cathcart was unable to continue and, with only a quarter of an hour on the clock, was replaced by Prödl.  Being close to the dugout, so we got to see first-hand the time taken to prepare the top knot (which isn’t meant as criticism, I find it rather fetching and it was done while he was receiving instructions).  Burton threatened with a cross from Dyer, but it was an easy catch for Pantilimon.  Watford took the lead through a lovely move as Mason played a one-two with Deeney before putting in a terrific cross that Kabasele stabbed home.  I think that the goal calmed a lot of nerves both on and off the pitch.

Deeney waiting for Brayford's throw

Deeney waiting for Brayford’s throw

Watford had a decent chance to increase the lead as Capoue played a through ball to Ighalo who played a quick one-two with Deeney before executing a trademark scoop and shooting just over the bar.  Burton had to make a substitution just after the half hour mark as Ward replaced the injured Miller.  The visitors had a great chance to equalize just before half time as a cross was punched to Ward on the edge of the box but Capoue was on hand to block the shot.  The Frenchman then went on a counter attack ending with a low shot that was saved by McLaughlin.  The first card came at the end of the half with Naylor booked for pulling Ighalo back as he tried to escape.

There was an atmosphere of satisfaction in the home stands at half time.  It was pleasing to have the lead and there had been some good signs, especially going forward.

 

Celebrating Sinclair's solo effort

Celebrating Sinclair’s solo effort

The visitors started the second half well and had the first chance as a Flanagan cross was headed just wide of the target by Varney.  Sinclair had a chance with a shot from inside the area, but it was straight at McLaughlin.  Another Flanagan cross flew across the face of the goal just missing the outstretched boot of Harness.  At the other end, Capoue’s shot from distance flew just wide of the target.  Watford’s second substitution came on the hour as Kaboul was replaced by Brice Dja Djédjé making his first appearance for the Hornets, having been injured since his transfer from Marseille.  There was a long stoppage after Varney went down following a clash with Pantilimon.  It looked nasty as the Burton man was stretchered off wearing an oxygen mask.  I hate to see players carried off, I hope he makes a rapid recovery.  He was replaced by Akins.  Watford were two goals to the good on 77 minutes as Sinclair went on a run at the Burton defence before unleashing a shot that beat the keeper.  The goal was doubly gratifying as it seemed to make the game safe for the Hornets as well as giving an example to some of his team mates just to shoot if you get a sight of goal.  There was a great chance for a third as Capoue played a through ball to Sinclair who found Ighalo running in to the box, he scooped the ball on to his right foot and shot, but it was blocked by the keeper’s legs.

Djédjé takes a throw-in

Djédjé takes a throw-in

Watford had another decent chance as a corner was cleared to Mason, he played a square ball to Djédjé who shot over the target.  Due to the long stoppage for Varney’s injury, there were 8 minutes of time added on, which gave Sinclair a chance to go on another run towards goal but this time McLaughlin was equal to his strike.  There was just time to give youngster Carl Stewart a debut as he replaced Sinclair after what seemed like an age waiting for a break in the game.  He is the 60th player from the Watford Academy to make an appearance for the first team (the third in the past week).

The final whistle went on a very pleasing win for the Hornets as, while Burton had their moments, it had been a comfortable afternoon.  Mason certainly took his chance, with some great runs down the wing and was clearly delighted with his assist.  I hope that we see a lot more of him.  Doucouré had another good game in the midfield and Capoue had his best game for some time.  Sinclair played well and was clearly buoyed by his goal and our first sight of Djédjé was very promising indeed.  After weeks of doom and gloom, it was lovely to have a post-match discussion with so many positives to reflect on.  Next week’s visit by Middlesbrough will be very interesting indeed.

Thrashed at Anfield

Th pre-match display in the Kop is as impressive as ever

Th pre-match display in the Kop is as impressive as ever

One of my closest and longest-standing friends

lives on Merseyside so, when the fixture list came out, I arranged to spend the weekend visiting.  I arrived on Friday afternoon a little too early for them to be home from work, so I spent the time I had to kill in the Tate with Klein, Krasiński, Blake and Emin, which was a lovely relaxing start to the weekend.  A Saturday spent walking on the beach followed by some sightseeing in the city and the firework display and I was suitably refreshed and ready for whatever was to come on Sunday afternoon.

On Sunday morning, I was treated to a slap-up breakfast before heading in to town.  My plan had been to leave my weekend bag in the left luggage at Lime Street Station, so it was a bit of a shock to arrive there to find that signs stating ‘Sorry, full.’  They could not offer an alternative venue beyond finding a local hostel that may keep the bag.  I contemplated trying one of the hotels nearby but decided just to hope that they would allow me in at Anfield.  On arrival at the pub, I bumped into our award-nominated Supporter Liaison Officer and mentioned my problem.  He checked the advice that had been received, which mentioned ‘small bags only’.  At that point I threw myself on the mercy of the bar manager who happily took my bag and stowed it away for my return.  What a lovely bloke.

The minute's silence

The minute’s silence

A big crowd of Watford fans gathered for the pre-match beers both those who had travelled north and a large contingent of North West Hornets.  As I boarded the bus to go from the city centre to Anfield, I headed for the back row of the top deck where there were a number of our faithful but no spare seats.  Thankfully my lovely friend, Alice, offered me a seat on her lap that was considerably more comfortable for me than for her, but for which I was very grateful indeed.

Team news was that Mazzarri had made the one enforced change as Janmaat came in for the injured Prödl.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Amrabat, Behrami, Capoue, Pereyra; Deeney and Ighalo.

As this was the closest game to Remembrance Sunday, there was a minute’s silence in memory of the war dead that was impeccably observed.

Amrabat and Coutinho await Janmaat's throw-in

Amrabat and Coutinho await Janmaat’s throw-in

The pre-match concern had been how our cobbled together defence would cope with the pace of the Liverpool team and the way that the home side started the game provided no comfort to Watford fans.  They had an early chance as Lallana went on a great run before crossing for Firmino, whose shot was straight at Gomes in the Watford goal.  There was a brief distraction off the field soon after.  Anfield is the one ground in the Premier League at which, due to the impact of Hillsborough, none of the home fans stand for long periods of time, so the stewards came to request that those in the lower section of away fans take their seats.  A few people did as requested but one man decided to argue the toss with both the steward and a fan who complained of his view being blocked and another came running in from elsewhere to have a go at the steward and the fan, so the majority remained standing ensuring that I could see very little of what went on in the goalmouth just to our left.

Watford’s first chance came on 10 minutes after some decent hold up play from Ighalo, he played the ball out to Amrabat who shot wide.  The home side had a great chance to take the lead as Watford failed to clear a corner, the ball fell to Lucas whose shot was stopped by a close range save from Gomes.  At the other end, Britos met a Capoue free kick with a header that was easily saved by Karius.

Klopp observing Mazzarri's instructions

Klopp observing Mazzarri’s instructions

Liverpool came close to opening the scoring with a shot from Coutinho that cannoned back off the crossbar.  On 20 minutes, the home side should have taken the lead as Janmaat failed to put in a tackle on Mané who made his way into the box before finding Coutinho, thankfully for the visitors the Brazilian’s shot was off target.  Liverpool threatened again as a Milner shot from the edge of the area was caught by Gomes.  In a rare attack by the visitors, Amrabat put in a dangerous cross, but there was no Watford player in the box to apply the final touch.  Liverpool continued the onslaught, but there was good work from Britos to distract Firmino as a through ball came to him, so he shot wide.  Gomes was then called into action, first to stop a shot from Mané that was straight at him, then Milner broke into the box and was stopped by a brave intervention from the Watford keeper that was to have consequences later on.  The resultant corner led to Liverpool finally opening the scoring on 27 minutes, as it was met by a lovely header from Mané.  There was a brief flurry of activity from the visitors as a Pereyra flick fell just behind Deeney.  Then Amrabat crossed to Ighalo in the box, he touched the ball across to Deeney who was unable to connect and the ball rolled through to the keeper.  Liverpool were two goals up within a couple of minutes as Coutinho scored with a shot from the edge of the area.  There appeared to be some strong words between Mazzarri and Deeney on the sidelines after this goal and Troy came on with instructions for each of his colleagues.

Kaboul strikes a free kick

Kaboul strikes a free kick

Of more concern at this time was that Gomes was flat on his back in the area and, once it was clear that it wasn’t just a gesture of frustration, the physio was on and a stretcher appeared.  The Brazilian eschewed use of the stretcher and hopped off the field to applause from the travelling Hornet faithful and also the Liverpool fans on that side of the pitch, which was much appreciated.  Pantilimon took his place and must have been grateful that the peppering of the Watford goal slowed down for a while.  There was a brief hope that the visitors would reduce the deficit as a Holebas free kick was cleared only as far as Amrabat who hit a wild shot well over the bar.  But the action moved straight down the other end of the field and Can headed Lallana’s cross past Pantilimon for Liverpool’s third goal.  Again Watford attempted to strike back as Capoue broke into the box before shooting, but Karius was equal to the effort.  The last chance of the half came from the home side as Milner hit a free kick that was kept out of the net by a one handed save from Pantilimon.  It was a relief when the half time whistle went.  As expected, Liverpool’s pace had been relentless and too much for the Watford defence but, on a positive note, Watford had continued to launch counter-attacks rather than wilting under the pressure.

Pereyra takes a corner

Pereyra takes a corner

The first attack of note in the second half came as Coutinho hit an effort from distance that flew just wide.  For the visitors Ighalo cut the ball back to Janmaat, but the shot was straight at the Liverpool keeper.  The first caution of the game went to Holebas for a clumsy trip on Mané.  Liverpool scored their fourth on 57 minutes as a cross from Lallana rolled through the entire Watford defence before being turned in by Firmino, it looked like terrible defending.  The fifth goal was scored on the hour as Firmino cut the ball back for Mané to beat Pantilimon.  At this point each side made a substitution as Watson replaced Behrami (who had a poor game) for the visitors and Wijnaldum came on for Mané.  Watford had their best spell of the game at this point and it is difficult to say whether this was due to the introduction of Watson or the home side relaxing.  A cross from Amrabat was nicked from just in front of Ighalo and cleared for a corner which came out to Capoue whose shot was stopped by a decent save from Karius.  Another good stop from the Liverpool keeper prevented Britos from pulling a goal back for the Hornets.  Liverpool’s second substitution saw Sturridge replacing Lallana.  Some great work from Watson, who managed to complete a pass while falling over, started a lovely move which finished with Deeney playing a through ball to Capoue whose shot was stopped on the line.  Soon after, the visitors got on the scoresheet as Amrabat cut the ball back to Janmaat who beat Karius to give the travelling Hornets something to celebrate.

Ighalo, Deeney and Capoue waiting for a ball in

Ighalo, Deeney and Capoue waiting for a ball in

Watford continued to attack with a shot from distance from Ighalo that the keeper was equal to.  Liverpool could have restored their five goal advantage soon after as a shot from Sturridge rebounded off the crossbar.  The second card of the game went to Britos for a foul on Can.  Sturridge threated again as he broke forward and unleashed a shot that required a decent save from Pantilimon to keep it out.  Mazzarri’s final substitution saw Zúñiga on for Pereyra, while Klopp replaced Coutinho with Ejaria.  Sturridge seemed determined to get his name on the scoresheet as he hit a curling shot that appeared to be tipped on to the cross bar.  He followed this with a shot from a tight angle that was saved, but Liverpool were not to be denied a sixth goal as Wijnaldum connected with the loose ball to finish past Pantilimon.  Watford had one final chance to finish the game on a positive note as a Holebas cross was headed down to Deeney who turned and shot, but the effort was blocked.

When the final whistle went, it was a relief.  Very few of the Watford players came to acknowledge the fans, which is understandable, but it was nice to see Amrabat, Watson and Deeney make the effort.  Troy had his taken his boots off with the intention of throwing them to someone in the crowd.  The stewards had a word which meant that he just handed them to a couple of youngsters at the front, which is a much better option.

Holebas lines up a free kick

Holebas lines up a free kick

I must be mellowing in my old age as this didn’t hurt anything like as much as previous heavy defeats.  I think it helped that Watford didn’t just sit back, so there was some attacking play to enjoy.  Also, Liverpool were superb and there is no shame in being beaten by a team as good as that.  It was one of those games when I really wished that I was a neutral as I would have thoroughly enjoyed Liverpool’s performance.  Plus points for the Hornets were that Amrabat had another decent game going forward and we looked a lot stronger in midfield when Watson came on.  Ben put in a good showing which also allowed Capoue some freedom, so his performance improved considerably.

A number of us had booked a train home that allowed plenty of time for post-match discussions which were strangely enjoyable given that we had so little to cheer about.  I continued my good fortune with great company on the journey home as Miles Jacobson spotted an old friend of his so we were joined by Ray Houghton, who is a hero of mine and turned out to be a delightful man.  It was so interesting listening to him and when he kissed me goodbye at the end of the journey, it didn’t feel like such a bad day after all.

 

The Gills Triumph in the League Cup

Guedioura makes amends

Guedioura makes amends

I suspect that I was one of very few people who bought tickets for this game as soon as they went on sale.  My season ticket seat is a couple of seats away from my niece’s.  Since I knew that the guys who sit between us don’t usually attend early League Cup games, I decided to buy their seats instead of mine.  When my sister found out on Monday that she would be able to get leave from work to attend and was able to buy my seat (prime in the middle of the Rookery), it was clear that the attendance at this game would be rather low.  That suspicion was confirmed when the West Herts was relatively empty pre-match and, after Don and Trond left early to go to the ground, I was Franny-no-mates at our usual table.  For this reason, it was a surprise to arrive at the ground twenty minutes before kick-off to see a huge queue at the ticket office.  Sadly, it seems that many fans were not aware that their tickets would not be uploaded to their Season Cards and so faced an irritating and unexpected queue to collect tickets that they thought they already had.

With a new head coach, there is always the question of whether he will make wholesale changes for the early cup games or use them to help the team to gel.  We were given our answer when Mazzarri made nine changes from the Chelsea game with only Guedioura and Deeney keeping their places.  The starting line-up was Pantilimon; Nyom, Hoban, Kabasele; Paredes, Guedioura, Watson, Doucouré, Anya; Deeney and Vydra.  So a chance to see Troy and Matěj teaming up again and it was rather lovely to see Hoban back after so long out injured.

Guedioura on a run

Guedioura on a run

As we waited for kick-off, a lot of balls were flying in to the Rookery, one of which hit a little lad a couple of rows behind me.  I heard applause and then saw Guedioura running up the aisle past us to make sure that the child was OK and give him a ball to take home.  That may well have been the highlight of the evening.

The game started promisingly enough as Anya cut the ball back to Deeney whose snap shot was saved.  At the other end our new defender, Kabasele, made a good start to his debut with a great tackle on Osadebe.  My notes relating to the next twenty minutes tell me that we were making a lot of deep crosses while none of our players were anywhere near the far post.  Watford had a decent chance on the half hour as a shot from Anya was parried and Doucouré hit the rebound from the edge of the area just wide.  Guedioura was the next to threaten the Gillingham goal but, again, shot wide from distance.   Gillingham’s first notable chance came just before half-time but Emmanuel-Thomas fired well wide of the target, so we reached half time goalless.  Watford had been the better side with the majority of the possession, but had rarely tested Nelson in the Gillingham goal.

Celebrating Ighalo's goal

Celebrating Ighalo’s goal

As we started the second half, I had high hopes that we would finally convert our dominance to goals and we started promisingly.  Watson had the first goal attempt of the second period with a shot that flew just over the bar.  Then Hoban met a Paredes cross with a header that was well over the target.  The first substitution came ten minutes into the half as Ighalo replaced Guedioura.  It was an attacking substitution that paid off almost immediately as Deeney chipped a ball over the defence and Ighalo turned it in from close range.  The Hornets should have been two up as Deeney and Vydra combined to find Ighalo in space but his shot was blocked.  That was the Czech’s last action of the game as he was replaced by Capoue.  I felt sorry for Matěj, he had worked hard and was obviously keen to impress.  It had been interesting to see Deeney and Vydra together again.  There were lots of little flicks between them, but they didn’t come to anything and you couldn’t help thinking that Troy was doing his best to help his strike partner to get the goal that he so desperately wanted.  There was very warm applause for Matěj as he left the field which he reciprocated.  Watford should have had a second goal as a header from Hoban was blocked on the line before an attempt at a clearance by a Gillingham defender hit the bar.

Hoban and Kabasele line up for a corner

Hoban and Kabasele line up for a corner

At the other end, a stupid tackle by Nyom on a player who was going nowhere led to a penalty award.  The Rookery started chanting Pantilimon’s name, but he didn’t need to get involved as Dack put the ball into Row Z.  Deeney could have turned the knife with a header from a Paredes cross, but Nelson was equal to it.  Watford were to rue not making the most of their chances as, with eight minutes to go, Byrne hit a shot from distance into the far corner of Pantilimon’s goal.  Watford had a couple of late chances to win the game but Doucouré skyed his shot and then Hoban fired just wide, although the flag was already up for offside.  So Watford had been punished again for dropping deep to preserve a narrow lead and we were to be treated to extra time.

In the first minute of extra time Ighalo should have regained the lead for the Hornets, but his shot was just wide of the near post.  Mazzarri’s second substitution saw Zúñiga replacing Anya and the Colombian could have broken the deadlock but shot just wide.  Against the run of play, it was the visitors who took the lead as the Watford defence failed to deal with a cross, allowing Dack to sneak in to shoot.  Pantilimon appeared to grab the ball but only succeeded in taking it over the line.  This was missed by the linesman but the referee was notified due to the goal line technology and indicated a goal.

Defending a corner

Defending a corner

Watford tried to strike back in the second period of extra time but it wasn’t to be our night as Hoban had another effort cleared off the line and goal machine, Capoue, hit a decent chance high and wide, much to the disappointment of my niece who is a big fan but has yet to see him score.  The final whistle went to a loud chorus of boos.

What is it with Watford and the early rounds of the League Cup?  This is the latest in a long line of dreadful performances.  These games should be an opportunity for fringe players to make a claim for a place but only Kabasele and Hoban really impressed.  Certainly, those who have expressed concern regarding some recent mistakes from Gomes will have derived no comfort from Pantilimon’s showing.  Deeney hasn’t looked himself in the early games this season, although he rarely does when things aren’t going his way.  You can’t help but think that this would have been a good game in which to rest him and give Sinclair a chance to impress.

So we are out of the cup to a League One side and anticipating a visit from Arsenal.  The international break can’t come quickly enough.

 

 

More Joy from Rattigan than the Hornets

Gomes in a kit reminiscent of Steve Sherwood

Gomes in a kit reminiscent of Steve Sherwood

As much as I love both pre-season games and Austria, the late announcement of the fixtures, the fact that they were in the middle of nowhere and a date with the Galway Arts Festival meant that I decided against travelling, so it has been a couple of weeks since I last saw Watford play at Stevenage, a game that was very enjoyable indeed.

On our last visit to Loftus Road, it took a huge diplomatic initiative to get our party into a pub near the ground.  Apart from Pete and Julie who, when asked to produce a QPR season ticket, looked baffled and said they just wanted to have lunch and were escorted to the bar.  So, for this visit, we decided on a venue further back along the Hammersmith and City line.  It was a lovely pub with a pleasant beer garden, decent beer and food.  But I doubt that we will return due to the terrible service at the bar and the meals attracting a 12.5% service charge for someone to deliver the plates to the table.  It was a good thing that the company was so delightful.

I have stopped buying programmes at away games, but usually make an exception for non-league or lower league clubs who could do with the cash.  QPR don’t fall into that category but, had I been tempted, the fact that they were charging £3 for a few pages would have confirmed my decision.

Suarez on the ball

Suarez on the ball

Given the number of new players that have been drafted in over the Summer, I was a little surprised that only Doucouré was included in the starting line-up which was Gomes; Nyom, Cathcart, Britos; Anya, Doucouré, Suárez, Capoue, Holebas; Deeney and Ighalo.  This was my first opportunity to see the players wearing the new home shirt.  I can’t say that it appealed to me on first viewing.  It is very yellow, which is no bad thing, but rather shapeless, so making some of our more stocky players look as if they have been over indulging during their break.  I saw a couple of fans wearing the shirt and it just didn’t look new or original.  But the most interesting talking point of the day regarding kit was the fact that the QPR goalie, Smithies, was in all black, as were the referees.  I was rather confused when I first saw the referee pick up the ball.  Since when has that been allowed?

The game did not start well for the Hornets who could have been two goals down in the first five minutes.  First, Britos lost the ball to Gladwin, who blazed over the bar, provoking chants of “That’s why you’re Championship” from some among the Watford crowd who may have had some pause when, a minute later, Polter headed against the bar.

Juan Camilo Zuniga

Juan Camilo Zuniga

A shot from Chery that flew wide of the near post provoked more derision from the Watford fans, but they were silenced on 20 minutes as Polter hit a lovely shot from just inside the box that beat Gomes.  The goal spurred the Hornets to their first decent goal attempt as Holebas cut the ball back to Deeney, but a QPR defender put him off enough to ensure that he shot past the near post.  On the half hour, there was a rare moment of quality from the Hornets as Doucouré found Capoue who curled a shot wide of the far post.  In the dying minutes of the half, Ighalo met a cross from Anya with a header that flew over the bar and, almost immediately, the Nigerian had another chance with a shot that was cleared off the line.

Despite the late burst of action from the Hornets, the half time verdict was that it had been a shocking display.  Thankfully my mood was improved by bumping into Olly Wicken and having a chat about his new Hornet Heaven podcast.  A request by this Luddite for download instructions was granted and followed up with a link in a tweet, so I now have all four episodes lined up for my commute to work this week (https://audioboom.com/boos/4865618-s1-e1-the-turnaround).

Christian Kabasele

Christian Kabasele

At the start of the second half, we had the opportunity to see a couple of the new recruits as Kabasele and Zuniga joined Amrabat in replacing Nyom, Doucouré and Anya.  There was a lovely move between Amrabat and Zuniga at the start of the half that finished with a cross that was cleared just before Deeney could connect.  But it was a false dawn as we never really looked like getting an equaliser.  The introduction of Pantilimon, Prödl, Watson, Success and Guedioura during the second half had little impact on the proceedings.  The home side increased their lead on 82 minutes as the Watford defence went missing allowing a corner to fly across the box before it was headed home by Washington.  The Hornets finally got the pulses racing in the last minute of the game as Guedioura jinked into the box and unleashed a shot that took a decent save from Smithies to keep out of the net.  Deeney connected with the rebound, but Smithies caught his header.  The final whistle went to some boos in the away end that were as half-hearted as the Watford performance.

At the end of the game, more than one person wished me luck in finding anything to include in a report.  While the results of pre-season games are irrelevant, you do hope to see a team and plan for the upcoming season start to emerge, but this game was totally uninformative.  In fact, we seemed to have gone backwards from the performance against Stevenage, even taking the better quality of the opposition into account.

So back to the pub to meet up with a couple from our party who had left early and so missed the best Watford move of the game.  After the post-mortem I went on to the National Theatre to see The Deep Blue Sea.  The fact that a tale of heartbreak and betrayal lifted my spirits after the match tells you all you need to know about both performances.