Tag Archives: Craig Cathcart

Deprived of Sleep and Entertainment

A kind welcome in the concourse

I had to be on the East coast of the US for work on Friday.  Travelling overnight to attend a football match felt like old times as I did that frequently when I lived there.  I was thankful that the flight was on time and I managed to get a few hours sleep so didn’t feel too bad on arrival.  Before I went to sleep on the flight, I took one last chance to watch the Match of the Day highlights of the Liverpool game.  I needed that positivity before a trip to Selhurst Park.  I was home just after 9am, so had plenty of time to shower, change and pack my bag for the football before heading for South London.

Having taken the wrong exit out of East Croydon station, I was somewhat disorientated, but finally found the pub and was pleased to find Jacque and Richard already there, we were later joined by Mike.  As we were readying to leave for the game, Mike had a sudden realisation that he had not brought his match ticket with him.  He contemplated returning home and, hopefully, making it back for the second half, but after a few panicked texts, he secured a replacement and so was able to see the whole game.  Whether that was a positive thing is open to question.  On the platform waiting for the train to Selhurst, we met a very friendly and pleasant Palace fan who engaged us in conversation.  He was full of praise about our performance against Liverpool last week and far from confident about his team’s prospects for the game.  We were appreciative of the praise but also shared his lack of confidence regarding our chances.

Femenia takes a throw-in

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one enforced change with Pereyra replacing the injured Deulofeu.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue; Pereyra, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.  While there were no ex-Watford players in the Palace team, they do have the lovely Ray Lew in their dugout, which means that I find it hard to wish them ill.

The first attack of note came from the Hornets as Hughes broke down the right and succeeded in reaching the penalty area where he was frustrated by a great tackle from Kouyaté.  Watford had a decent chance to take the lead after quarter of an hour when Doucouré beat a couple of defenders before shooting from a tight angle, but Guaita in the Palace goal was equal to his effort, Sarr latched onto the follow-up but his shot was blocked and deflected wide.  There was a rather strange incident as Hughes was fouled, but the ball broke for Sarr so the referee allowed advantage to be played.  However, Sarr was then flagged offside and, instead of bringing play back, the free kick went to the home side.  A baffling decision that was rightly protested by Watford’s players and fans, but the referee wasn’t moved.

Doucoure on the attack as Deeney and Capoue look on

The Hornets threatened again as Doucouré and Sarr broke forward while exchanging passes, but the resulting shots were blocked allowing the home side to break down the other end where Foster came out to head a lofted ball clear.  Watford had another chance to break the deadlock as Hughes cut inside and shot just wide of the far post.  The first chance for the home side came as Zaha found van Aanholt in the box but his cross was blocked by Foster and bounced off the Palace man for a goal kick.  It had been all Watford, so it was incredibly frustrating when the home side scored on 28 minutes after a counterattack, McArthur found Ayew on the edge of the box and he shot between two defenders and past Foster’s outstretched hand.  The defenders in question, Cathcart and Masina, really should have done better.  Kabasele had been down injured after a challenge during the attack that led to the goal, so VAR was invoked but the goal stood and, thankfully, Christian was able to continue after treatment.  The first booking of the game went to Femenía for pulling Zaha over.  Watford had a decent chance to hit back when Masina played a lovely ball over the top to Pereyra but he couldn’t position himself to take advantage and Guaita gathered the ball.  Zaha was then booked for a pull on Capoue.  The Palace man then went down very easily under a challenge from Hughes, which infuriated the Watford players.  The decision went against Zaha who was fortunate to avoid a second yellow.

Hughes readies to take a corner

So, we went into the half time break a goal behind to Palace’s only real shot of the half.  The Hornets were also unfortunate in the half time penalty shoot-out.  Although young Lucy from Watford was a star, scoring and impressing the commentator by celebrating with a cartwheel.

The first incident of note in the second half was a prolonged period of handbags after Capoue fouled Zaha.  There was a VAR check for a possible red card but, in the end, there were just cautions for Capoue and Kouyaté.  The game restarted with a free kick for Palace in a dangerous position which came to nothing as van Aanholt’s delivery was headed over by Ayew.  The next caution of the game went to Doucouré after pulling Zaha back.  Zaha was the next to create a scoring chance but Foster stood tall and the shot bounced off him.  The Hornets had a chance of their own as a free kick from Pereyra dropped for Deeney whose shot was blocked.  Then a lovely passing move from the Hornets finished with Pereyra shooting straight at Guaita.  There was another booking as Benteke was cautioned for a foul on Sarr having caught the youngster’s heel as he tried to escape.

Ignacio Pussetto

There was a half-chance for the Hornets as, from a Sarr cross, a mix up in the Palace defence almost allowed Hughes in but, eventually, Guaita gathered the ball.  Midway through the second period, Watford had the best chance of the half so far when Deeney tried a shot from distance that required a smart save from Guaita to tip it over.  There was another decent chance soon after when Sarr chipped the ball into the box for Doucouré whose looping header looked to be going in until Guaita pushed it around the post.  From the resulting corner, the ball reached Hughes whose shot from the edge of the area was blocked.  With 20 minutes to go, Hodgson made his first change, bringing Milivojevic on for McArthur.  The home side had a decent chance to increase their lead as Benteke tried a bicycle kick that hit the side netting.  With 15 minutes remaining, Pearson made a double substitution replacing Pereyra and Deeney with Pussetto and Welbeck.  The Hornets created a half chance as a long ball found Pussetto, who delivered a low cross for Sarr, but Guaita was the first to the ball.  Pearson made his final substitution bringing Gray on for Hughes, who left the field in front of the travelling Hornets and was warmly applauded.  There were five minutes of added time, but the only action of note was a chance for the home side to increase their lead as Benteke found Ayew, but Foster dived at his feet to avert the danger.

Masina takes a free kick

So, after the euphoria of last week, this was an unwelcome return to what has been the reality of most of this season.  It was a very disappointing game.  The Hornets had been the better team for most of the first half but, as so often this season, did not make the most of their chances and the home side scored after a counterattack.  Once they were ahead, Palace defended well and, apart from a brief spell in the second half, Watford never really looked like winning the point that their performance deserved.  Thankfully results elsewhere meant that we stayed out of the relegation zone on goal difference, but it felt like a wasted opportunity and, again, I worry that we won’t get the points that we need from the upcoming “winnable” games.

Another disappointment was the away crowd.  Last season, one of our party had made complaints when the gangway next to us had filled with fans who celebrated aggressively and caused injury to someone in our group.  The complaint had been referred to Croydon council, so we hoped to see an improvement in the stewarding on this occasion.  It was not apparent early in the game as a number of Watford fans started to take up positions in the gangway.  The stewards made some attempts to move these lads on, but most of their efforts led to complaints which meant that, for periods of the game, my view of one of the few sections of the pitch that I could otherwise see was blocked by stewards arguing with fans.  I have often said that I enjoy visiting Selhurst Park, but I realise now that this came from a time before our promotion when there were always a loads of spare seats in the away end and you could choose where to sit.  In those days I took up a place in the wooden seats at the back that were usually populated by those who wanted to stand and sing.  Nowadays everybody stands which means that, if you need to sit, you have no chance of seeing the game.  Added to that, even if you stand, if you are 5’6”, as I am, you won’t see a lot of the action

Our post-match analysis was to take place at Richard’s.  He lives in South London and he and his lovely wife had kindly invited us back for dinner and drinks.  When the football is as poor as it was on Saturday, a lovely evening with friends is all the therapy that you need.

 

Thrashing the Would-be Invincibles

Sarr about to escape the attentions of the Liverpool defence

As always when we have a late kick-off, my pre-match routine was completely messed up.  Due to the late finish time of the game and an appointment in Hertfordshire on Sunday, I had decided to stay over in Watford so I drove over and arrived at about 2:40.  Despite knowing that the kick-off was at 5:30, this seemed to be cutting it a bit fine in the event that the kick-off time had been changed back at short notice (I know!!)  But the lack of people in Watford shirts on the Rickmansworth Road convinced me that I hadn’t got kick-off time wrong.  I checked in to the hotel before walking to the West Herts and managed to get caught in a nasty hailstorm on the way, so was very glad to arrive in the warm and find the usual suspects at ‘our’ table.  I was greeted by a very apologetic Glenn, who had promised pork scratchings but arrived at the butcher to find that they only had scraps left.  He needn’t have worried as there was just enough and they were gorgeous, although it gave us another excuse to complain about Sky Sports.

We spent the afternoon cheering on the opponents of the teams around us and could have done without West Ham beating Southampton.  Liverpool came into this game looking to make it a record 19 Premier League wins in a row and to continue their unbeaten run in the league this season.  A couple of very optimistic Watford fans said that they fancied us to get something from the game but, based on our recent form, I couldn’t see us getting anything other than soundly beaten.  Richard was one who thought that we might get the win, but when he left early “to soak up the atmosphere”, we said our goodbyes as he wouldn’t be back in the West Herts after the game.  Knowing that he never comes back after defeats made his positive prediction appear rather shallow.

Masina and Hughes

Team news was that Pearson had made two changes, and what very welcome changes they were, as Femenía and Sarr came in for Dawson and Pereyra.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Femenía; Hughes, Capoue; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

The game kicked off and the first chance fell to the Hornets as Deulofeu cut inside and shot wide of the near post.  The home side also created the next chance of note as Doucouré fed Deulofeu, but the shot was just over the bar.  The same players combined again soon after, this time Deulofeu played the ball back to Doucouré, whose shot was blocked by van Dijk for a corner that came to nothing.  Despite having a lot of the play, Liverpool’s first chance didn’t come until the 20th minute when Oxlade-Chamberlain chipped the ball over to Salah in the box, he was in a great position but could only find the side netting.  Just after the half hour mark, Deulofeu went down under a challenge from van Dijk.  It looked pretty innocuous at first and I had just shouted “Get up, Geri” when I saw the referee waving to the bench for medical treatment.  It was soon obvious that the injury was bad and, after treatment, he was stretchered off.  This was so sad for the lad, and for us, as he had been having a superb game.  He left the field to the sound of his name being sung from the home stands and was replaced by Pereyra.

Deeney and Lovren in the customary pose as Doucoure breaks through

Deeney could have been in trouble after a robust challenge on Alexander-Arnold.  Troy went over and helped the lad to his feet and the referee was happy that no action needed to be taken, but the Watford captain may have been a bit lucky there.  The visitors created a half chance as a cross reached Mané, but his body position was wrong and the ball bounced off his head.  As it happened, his position on the field was wrong too as the offside flag was up.  Sarr created a much better chance trying a shot from the edge of the area that was over the target.  In time added on, there was the joy of a superb tackle from Masina on Alexander-Arnold.  Tackles don’t get as much coverage as (even poor) goal attempts, but sometimes they are things of beauty and this was one of those.  Watford could have taken the lead in time added on at the end of the half when, from a free kick, Alisson made a mistake allowing Deeney in, but the Liverpool keeper recovered to make a save and Deeney could only knock the follow-up wide.

So, we reached half time with the game goalless.  Liverpool had most of the possession, but the Hornets had created all of the noteworthy chances.  It had been an impressive performance but, as so often this season, I just worried that we would regret being so wasteful in front of goal.

Etienne Capoue

The half time guest was Heiðar Helguson who was a man of few words but seeing some highlights of his time with us was just a joy.  As would be expected, he was given a tremendous reception and appeared to appreciate it.

The Hornets started the second half as they had finished the first as Pereyra played a lovely ball through to Sarr whose shot was kept out by a one-handed save from Alisson.  At the other end, there was a bit of pinball in the Watford box, but Foster was finally able to gather the ball.  The Hornets took the lead on the 53rd minute as, from a Masina throw, the ball reached Doucouré who played the ball back to Sarr who finished from close range sparking mad celebrations in the home stand.  I have to admit that, after last week, my celebration was slightly delayed while I assured myself that VAR wouldn’t intervene.  I normally have a chance to grab some sort of photo of the players celebrating.  On this occasion, we had only just stopped hugging each other as Sarr reached the centre circle for the restart.  Lovely as the goal was, it felt far too early in the game to have any confidence in the lead, Liverpool had plenty of time to strike back.

Celebrating the third goal

The Hornets had a decent chance to grab a second soon after when Deeney got his head to a Hughes free kick, but his effort was wide of the target.  Watford did not have long to rue that miss as Hughes played a lovely back heel down the line to Deeney, he released Sarr who bore down on goal before lifting the ball over Alisson.  It was another lovely goal and the Liverpool players looked rather shocked.  I did get a photo of the celebration for this one, but my hands were shaking so much that it is just a yellow blur.  Klopp made a change before the restart bringing Lallana on for Wijnaldum.  The visitors had a chance to hit back almost immediately with a free kick in a dangerous position, but the delivery from Alexander-Arnold was woeful and flew well wide of the near post.  Hughes had a chance to make it three for the Hornets, but his shot hit Sarr and was cleared.  Klopp made a second change replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain with Origi.  Liverpool had a great chance to pull a goal back when a ball into the Watford box was headed clear to Lallana who hit it well, but his effort rebounded off the outside of the far post.  Sarr should have grabbed a hat-trick when he got on the end of a cross from Masina, but he tried to hit a volley and ended up mishitting the shot which flew wide of the near post.

More players join the celebration of the third goal

The third goal came from a Liverpool mistake as Sarr intercepted a backpass from Alexander-Arnold, he coolly held the ball up before playing a gorgeous pass to Deeney who lofted a beautiful shot into the empty net.  It was a fantastic goal and the celebrations were suitably manic.  Thankfully, this time I got some lovely shots of the players celebrating.  But, when my brain engaged again, all I could think was “Tranmere”.  As those around me were singing rather rude things about “invincibles” I was muttering that there was just under 20 minutes to go so it was far too early to be celebrating.  With 10 minutes remaining, Klopp made his final substitution replacing Firmino with Minamino.  Meanwhile I was trying to keep calm, but my heart was racing.  Sarr then had a superb chance to score a fourth goal as he received a lovely through ball from Capoue but the shot was just wide of the target.  That was his last action of the game as Pearson replaced him with Pussetto.  I have to say that I was a little disappointed that he was denied the chance to get a hat-trick, but it was a sensible decision given the lack of game time that he has had of late.  With 5 minutes to go the Rookery was rocking with a chant of “Can we play you every week,” while I was still shouting “too early”.  Liverpool had a chance to pull one back as Salah crossed, but it was an easy catch for Foster.  Then van Dijk tried his luck from distance, but his effort was well over the bar.  Pearson made his second substitution on 89 minutes replacing Doucouré with Chalobah.  All eyes were on the fourth official as he held up the board indicating that there were 4 minutes of added time.  Those four minutes were mostly played in Watford’s half, but every poor pass from the visitors and the odd catch from Foster was loudly cheered.  It must have been the 93rd minute when I finally believed that we would win the game.  The final whistle went to joyous scenes in the home stands.

Masina prepares for a throw-in

After the celebratory hugs, we all just stood looking incredulously at each other.  I don’t think any of us could believe what we had just witnessed.  Michael in the row in front suggested that was possibly the best game we have ever played.  It was certainly up there with the best.  As we gathered in the concourse, Rose got a message from Amelia (her season ticket holding daughter who was unable to make the game) saying that last time we beat Liverpool 3-0 I had cried, and she hoped that we were all crying with joy.  We assured her that we had been.  The atmosphere in the concourse was a little muted.  Usually after games like this the concourse is noisy as songs are being belted out.  On this occasion, I think everyone was a little stunned.

We emerged onto Occupation Road to find a huge crowd, a sign that nobody had left early.  I left my family at the school car park and bumped into a West Herts regular with whom I waxed lyrical about the performance.  As I entered the bar the first person that I saw was Richard.  My enquiry as to what he was doing there was met with a broad smile and the offer of a drink.  The post-match analysis was joyous.  We all agreed that every one of our players had been magnificent.  The stats showed that Liverpool had enjoyed 71% of the possession, but the Watford defence had restricted them to only a single shot on target.  Deeney, Deulofeu and Pereyra had all been disappointing at Old Trafford, but had been superb in this game with even Pereyra working his socks off.  The performance of Femenía showed how much we had missed him.  What was really impressive was that, after two months out, he looked as though he had never been away.  Similarly with Sarr, who frightened the life out of the Liverpool defence, the only disappointment had been that he didn’t get his hat trick.  The midfield three of Hughes, Capoue and Doucouré had worked tirelessly and been incredibly solid.  Sometimes it is the silly things that give you immense pleasure and one of the memories that I will take from this game involved Capoue.  I love him as a player, but he can blow hot and cold.  Watching him when he is enjoying himself is utterly joyous and there was a point in the game when he sprinted from one side of the pitch to the other and back again, frustrating the Liverpool midfield and it was one of those moments that has me clapping my hands in glee.

Confirmation that it really happened

At the end of the day, we had beaten the team who are running away with the League.  Their recent performances have not been perfect, but they have continued to grind out results and were proving very hard to beat.  The fact that this Watford team not only beat them but did so convincingly was just amazing.  Although there is still a part of me waiting to wake up to find out that we have lost 6-0.

I was back in the hotel just in time to see the highlights on Match of the Day.  Any fears that the pundits would focus on how poor Liverpool had been were dispelled as they gave our lads the credit they deserved for their performance.  I was also gratified to get a message from a Scouse friend who congratulated us on a brilliant performance commenting that we were impressive all though the team.

Obviously, one win doesn’t keep you in the division, but we went on a great run after our impressive performance at Anfield.  I can only hope that this even more impressive performance at Vicarage Road gives the lads the confidence that they need to start playing with the quality that they know they have and getting the results that they deserve.

What a difference a week makes.  I love football again.

 

United we Fell

Masina preparing to take a throw-in

It was an early start for this game, and I couldn’t believe how many people were on the Central Line at 7:30 on a Sunday morning.  The journey to Manchester was uneventful.  Our usual group were going to be split between two pre-match pubs, one nearer the city centre, the other near the ground.  I met up with Pete at Piccadilly and, since the bar in Salford Quays wasn’t opening until midday and we were somewhat earlier than that, we headed to Deansgate to meet Graham and the Happy Valley Hornets.  Graham had arrived early and gone for breakfast.  While wandering in the area, he encountered a group of young men in hoodies and quickly realised that it was the lads out for a constitutional after their breakfast.

Our usual haunt didn’t open until midday, so an alternative had been chosen.  A quick look at TripAdvisor had shown a large number of one star reviews.  When we arrived it seemed OK, apart from the Man United memorabilia, but it went quickly downhill.  For what appeared to be a local pub, it was a bit surprising that the beer was at London prices.  But the clincher was when the barman, while clearing plates, knocked a pint of beer over the daughter of one of our group, claimed that she had done it and refused to provide a replacement.  It was a relief to take refuge in our usual haunt, I don’t think that we will be going back to the White Lion.

The decision to go to the more central pub looked even more misguided when I couldn’t fight my way on to a tram.  When I finally found a space to get on to one, it was the least crowded that had passed through so at least it was a relatively comfortable journey.

Doucoure on the ball

Knowing how restrictive the bag policy is at Old Trafford, I had packed carefully, only bringing things that I needed, but I still had a couple of things in a small bag.  As I passed through the first phalanx of stewards, I asked one of them if I could take my bag in.  He said that I could, and I passed through the next layer of security until I reached the one just before the turnstiles.  At that point I was told I couldn’t take the bag in.  I asked if it was OK to empty the bag into my pockets.  They were fine with that but said that I couldn’t take the actual bag in even though it was a nylon drawstring bag that could be tucked into a pocket.  At that point I gave up trying to reason and went back through the security cordons to the bag drop in the car park opposite.  There I found a young lad with an even smaller drawstring bag telling the attendants that he didn’t have the £5 they were demanding to leave his bag there.  I said that I would pay for him.  The woman behind the counter kindly said that we could put our bags together so that I would only have to pay once, and I had to point out that I didn’t know this boy so we wouldn’t be returning together.

I was livid when I got into the ground.  My mood wasn’t helped when I told my story only to find that two of our party had played the elderly card and brought in two bags that were considerably larger than mine and Mike had a Swiss army knife in his pocket!!  So much for their stringent security.

Doucoure and Masina

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one change with Hughes in for Chalobah.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Hughes, Capoue; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney.

Prior to kick-off, there was a minute’s silence for Harry Gregg, survivor and hero of the Munich air disaster, who had passed away during the week.  The silence was impeccably observed.

Watford had an early chance to take the lead as a defensive mistake allowed Deeney to escape, he broke into the box, but delayed taking a shot giving Shaw time to get back and make the clearance.  It was a golden chance that went to waste.  Troy had another chance to break, but Fred, while lying on the ground, managed to make a tackle allowing United to break and Greenwood to take a shot that was straight at Foster.  The Hornets created another decent chance as Deulofeu crossed for Doucouré, but the Frenchman could only find the side-netting.  Watford had a decent spell without testing the keeper, the next effort came from the home side and was a cross-cum-shot from James that Foster punched clear, it fell to Wan-Bissaka who shot into the side-netting.

Dawson on the ball as Capoue looks on

Watford threatened again as Doucouré went on a good run, his cross was knocked down to Deeney whose shot flew wide of the far post.  At the other end, a low shot by Shaw from the edge of the area was straight at Foster.  It has to be said that, at this stage of the game, the United fans were uncharacteristically noisy.  Martial went on a tremendous break but it came to nothing as his shot was well over the target.  In the away end, a new song got an airing as the travelling Hornets appropriated “Tequila” from Tranmere, but the climax of the song became a shout of “Masina”.  It was rather catchy.  Doucouré then went on a run and tried his luck, but de Gea got a hand to the shot and pushed it out for a corner.  Then Pereyra played in Masina, but he was slipping as he crossed and it was easily gathered by de Gea.  At the other end, James cut inside and shot well wide of the target.  The home side threatened again, this time James played the ball back to Fred just inside the area, but his shot was well over the bar.  Capoue then provided some light relief winning a free kick with what could only be described as a swallow dive.  It was elegant and effective, and the travelling faithful sang his name with some gusto.  Just as we thought we would make it to half time with no score, James played in Fernandes, Foster came out to meet him and took him down.  The United man made the most of it, but it was an obvious penalty.  Fernandes took the spot kick himself, taking a stuttering run up before sending Foster the wrong way and putting the home side ahead.  It could have been two after a mistake from Pereyra gave Fernandes another chance to score, but his shot was just wide of the target.

We were a little unlucky to be behind at half time, United had been poor but, as so often this season, Watford had not taken their chances.

Doucoure and Deeney celebrate the goal that never was

The Hornets created the first half-chance of the second period as Doucouré crossed for Deeney, but Shaw intervened to put the ball out for a corner.  From the corner, Deeney turned the ball in for what we thought was the equaliser.  We had celebrated, the players had celebrated, but then I saw Martin Atkinson in discussion with Harry Maguire who was indicating that he thought there had been a handball.  After consulting the VAR, Atkinson indicated upfield and I was momentarily hopeful until I realised that he was indicating a goal kick.  Apparently, the ball had come off Dawson’s arm in the build-up, so the goal didn’t stand.  The Hornets then won another corner but, on this occasion, the delivery from Hughes was easily caught by de Gea.  The home side threatened again as James played a through ball to Greenwood, whose shot across goal was put out for a corner.  Martial scored United’s second just before the hour mark.  Foster blocked the initial shot, but the Frenchman picked up the rebound and cleverly lofted the ball over Foster and in from a tight angle.  They had a decent chance for a third as Greenwood broke into the box and tried a shot that Foster saved with his feet.  The first booking of the game went to Cathcart for a foul on Martial.  United threatened again as Fernandes crossed for Maguire who headed wide.

Capoue, Masina and Deeney race upfield

With 20 minutes to go, Pearson made his first substitution, bringing Sarr on for Pereyra.  The youngster went on a run almost immediately, but his cross was put out for a corner that came to nothing.  With 15 minutes to go United were three up after Deulofeu lost the ball, Greenwood broke forward and played a one-two with Fernandes before finishing off the underside of the crossbar.  It was a quality goal and you couldn’t see any way back for the Hornets.  Pearson made a second substitution bringing Welbeck on for Deeney, who had had a disappointing game.  The Hornets had a great chance to pull a goal back as Hughes fed Deulofeu but the shot rebounded off the crossbar.  With ten minutes remaining, United made a triple substitution replacing Fred, Greenwood and Martial with McTominay, Chong and Watford old boy, Ighalo.  Pearson also made a final substitution bringing Cleverley on for Doucouré.  Ighalo immediately created a chance after picking up a poor header from Masina, that was meant for Foster, he rounded the Watford keeper but took the ball too wide and could only hit the outside of the post.  I was glad that he had missed as a goal against us from Ighalo would have been very hard to take.  Watford had one last chance to reduce the deficit when Deulofeu took a free kick that flew over the wall but was an easy catch for de Gea.  United could have scored a fourth when Matic released Chong who cut inside but he curled his shot just wide of the target.

Hughes prepares to take a free kick

The final whistle went on a comprehensive defeat for the Hornets.  Unlike the Brighton game, I did applaud the players off and there was a surprisingly good atmosphere among the travelling Hornets.  The Masina-Tequila song was getting a late airing, but the volume increased considerably with a rendition of “Ighalo-oh” for old times’ sake.  Odion seemed to appreciate the gesture as he turned and applauded the Watford fans.

On leaving the ground, I went to pick up my bag, which looked pitiful sitting on the shelf.   We then headed for the bar in Salford Quays to drown our sorrows.  On the way, Richard (wearing Watford gear) was called upon to give directions to some people wearing United scarves.  Bl**dy tourists!  The bar was much more hospitable than our pre-match venue and, after a nice glass of wine, something to eat and a good moan about the football, I felt a lot better.

It had been a disappointing afternoon, especially as United didn’t play particularly well.  The Watford performance had been better than the previous week, particularly in the first half, but once the goal was disallowed, all the fight seemed to go out of the lads and the result was never in doubt.  There were a lot of subpar performances and the wisdom of playing both Deulofeu and Pereyra was questioned.  They can both be luxury players and, in a scrap, as we are at the moment, we can’t afford that.  Pereyra, in particular, had an odd afternoon seeming to wander all over the place leaving Dawson exposed.  One of the topics of conversation was the Winter break.  Given the staggered nature of it, it doesn’t affect all teams equally.  Oddly, the Watford players looked rather rusty after their week off, while the United players, who should have been fatigued after a game in midweek, seemed a lot fresher.

With the visit of Liverpool next week, it is hard to see when the upturn will come and I am beginning to believe that the season will finish with the team being relegated.  At least if Leeds do get promoted it will mean we won’t have to go there. Every cloud and all that!

Despite the Disappointment, This is What We Do

The bust in the Glyndebourne room

A late kick-off on the South Coast played havoc with my sense of order.  It didn’t help that, due to engineering works, the timetable from Windsor had changed just for the weekend.  Thankfully, I managed to catch the train that I was aiming for and, when changing trains at Clapham Junction, I bumped into Jacque.  Others had been more organised than me, so she had arranged to meet Mike on the Lewes train.  By some brilliant planning (actually, a lot of luck), when the train pulled in we found that we had judged perfectly and were standing right by the doors to the coach in which Mike was sitting so were able to make the journey south together.

When we reached Lewes, we headed for the pre-match pub, which seems to have been under different ownership every time we have visited.  The new owners have introduced a Spanish feel to the menu and a new décor that I wasn’t totally enamoured with, apart from the lemur wallpaper in the bathrooms that was absolutely gorgeous.  Due to the late kick-off meaning a very late arrival home after the game, a couple of us had decided to stay the night in Lewes.  I had booked a room above the pub, so went and checked in.  I was staying in the Glyndebourne room in which the accessories included a “bronze” bust and a selection of opera glasses.  The bathroom was quite magnificent, including a deep bath and a shower that the landlady assured me was very easy to operate, even though there were multiple controls including one that turned it into a sauna.  I have to say that I wasn’t convinced that I would be able to remember her instructions by the next morning and was a little disappointed that the built-in seat wasn’t designed for me to take a rest while showering.

A kind welcome in the Ladies’ loo

As we got ready to leave for the game, I was in a foul mood and couldn’t work out why.  It wasn’t until the game got underway that I realised that it was pre-match nerves that had kicked in due to the importance of this game.  Earlier in the afternoon, it had been noted that Lewes FC were at home to Cheshunt at the wonderfully named Dripping Pan.  There was a suggestion that we should attend the game prior to heading for Falmer, but we would have had to leave halfway through the second half and that seemed a little rude.  As we waited for the train, we could hear cheers coming from the ground , we had assumed that this meant that Lewes were pulling ahead, but it turned out that Cheshunt were banging in the goals and ended the day as 6-1 winners.  In hindsight, maybe we should have stayed there after all.

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one change with Hughes in for Chalobah.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Hughes, Capoue; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney.

As I retrieved my distance glasses from my bag in order to watch the game there seemed to be something awry.  I couldn’t work out why my vision was impaired until I realised that one of the lenses had popped out.  Thankfully, it was in the glasses case, but I couldn’t replace it, so decided to dispense with the glasses for the afternoon.  It has to be said that, of late, there hasn’t been a lot worth seeing.

Doucoure celebrating with the bench (honest!)

The game kicked off and the home side created a very early chance as Kabasele failed to get his head on a cross from Trossard, the ball reached March whose shot was blocked for a corner.  March was involved in the next move, swinging in a cross that was met by Murray at the back post, but his header was easily caught by Foster.  The first vaguely meaningful attack from the Hornets came as Pereyra played the ball out to Doucouré who crossed for Deulofeu, but the shot was weak and easily claimed by Ryan.  By this time, my blurred vision was starting to irritate me and I decided that being able to see out of one eye was better than nothing, so I put on the damaged glasses just in time to see Capoue intercept a pass from Mooy, the ball fell to Doucouré who ran upfield and shot across Ryan into the corner.  It was a gorgeous goal and it was interesting to see Abdoulaye immediately run to the bench to celebrate with Pearson and the coaching staff.  The home side looked to hit back as a cross was headed out by Mariappa and the ball dropped to Mooy who shot well over the bar.  At the other end Doucouré found Deulofeu who pulled the ball back for Hughes whose shot was deflected for a corner.  The first booking of the game went to Schelotto for a foul on Deulofeu.  From the other end of the pitch, the card looked rather harsh as Geri had run into his opponent as he tried to clear the ball.  I had thought that we were fortunate to get the free kick, so certainly wasn’t expecting a card.

Deulofeu takes a free kick

The Hornets threatened again as Deeney knocked Duffy off the ball and played in Pereyra, but the cross went begging.  At the other end a cross from Trossard towards Murray in the box was cut out by Cathcart.  There were shouts for a penalty when Schelotto went down in the box, but the referee wasn’t interested.  As half-time beckoned a cross was deflected back to Foster by Pereyra, Ben caught the ball slightly dramatically and slid on his knees across the box giving a cheeky smile to the fans behind the goal.  This loses a lot in the telling, but was one of the most entertaining moments of the half.

So, we reached the break a goal to the good.  It had been a pretty dull half of football, although I was missing the action at our end of the ground as my view was restricted due to the people standing up in front of me in a shallow stand.  There was a child behind me standing on his seat and I have never been so tempted to do the same.

The welcome return of Will Hughes

The first chance of the second half went to the home side.   March was fouled by Pereyra on the edge of the box, Groß stepped up to take the free kick and his delivery was met with a strong punch from Foster.  The home side threatened again as a poor clearance came back to Schelotto, whose shot across goal looked dangerous, but there was no Brighton player on hand to turn it in.  The first substitution came on 57 minutes as Maupay replaced Burn for the home side.  The Hornets had a decent chance of a second goal when Deulofeu broke into the box, but his shot was poor and flew wide of the near post.  Potter then made a second change, bringing Alzate on for Groß.  There were then a couple of cautions for the visitors.  First, Hughes was booked for a robust tackle on Maupay.  Then Mariappa for a foul on March.  On both occasions, the home side had won free kicks in a dangerous position, but Foster was not tested on either occasion.  Even so, with our weakness against set pieces, this was causing me some concern.  With 15 minutes to go, Brighton made their final substitution as Jahanbakhsh came on in place of Schelotto.  There was some concern for the visiting fans as Masina was down for a while receiving treatment.  Holebas was stripped off ready to take in his place, but Adam recovered and was able to continue.  Brighton looked certain to grab the equaliser when Mooy broke into the box and shot goalwards, but Foster stuck a leg out and made a terrific save.  Sadly, it would prove to be in vain as, a minute or so later, Jahanbakhsh put in a cross which Mariappa powered past Foster.  The defender’s action was inexplicable.  There didn’t appear to be any Brighton players close by and Foster could have gathered the ball had Mariappa not intervened.  It was incredibly frustrating, and the travelling faithful were now bracing themselves for a defeat.  Pearson made his first change on 82 minutes replacing Pereyra with Pussetto.  The second change for the Hornets came soon after as Welbeck came on for Deulofeu.  The game was fizzling out but, with a minute to go, the home side had a chance to grab a winner when Jahanbakhsh crossed for Trossard, but he could only flick the ball wide.  There were 5 minutes of added time, but they passed without incident and the game ended in a draw.

Masina passes to Deulofeu

The fans in the away end had been getting increasingly irate during the second half and, as the final whistle went, a couple of fans were venting their anger at the players.  Normally I would dismiss the ranting, but these lads sit behind me in the Rookery every game and are absolutely lovely.  They had just seen enough, and I had a lot of sympathy with their viewpoint.  It is not often that I don’t applaud the players at the end of a game, but this was one of those occasions.

It took an age to get on the train back to Lewes.  On arrival, the London contingent headed home, while those of us from the suburbs and further afield headed for the pub and it was a relief to be sitting with a glass of wine in order to reflect on the afternoon.  It had been an awful game of football and, yet again, we had been the architects of our own downfall.  There was one moment of quality in the game, which was the gorgeous goal from Doucouré.  Although the late effort from Mooy and the save from Foster deserve a special mention.  Other than that, it was really turgid with Watford sitting deep against an ineffective Brighton attack.  It really hurt that we had lost two points due to a pointless own goal, especially as I am very fond of Mariappa, but I don’t know what he was thinking when he blasted that ball into the net.  At the end of the day, we remain in the bottom three and, while we are not yet adrift, it is hard to see where the next points are coming from.

I’m not sure that these would have helped at the game

The decision to stay over after the game turned out to be a good one as the anger and frustration about the day’s performance was supplanted with a discussion of how you can’t enjoy the highs anywhere near so much if you haven’t experienced the lows.  In the 40 years that I have been following the Hornets, I have experienced both, but I still marvel at the number of amazing days out that I have had while following a small, unfashionable club.

We all questioned why on earth we spend our Saturdays travelling to an event that gives no guarantee of any pleasure or entertainment.  The wonderful company is a major reason but, at the end of the day, this is what we do, and I don’t see any of us finding a replacement hobby any time soon.

Another Self-inflicted Defeat

Doucoure gets stuck in

After a weekend off, it was good to get back to the West Herts even if, after the last two games, I was no longer feeling optimistic about our chances.  The pre-match discussion about the end of the transfer window was brief as it had been fairly quiet for the Hornets, although there was a lot of sadness at the departure of Seb Prödl who went from Player of the Season to invisible after injuries.  I do hope that he goes on to great things.  There was also some discussion of Ighalo’s move to Manchester United, which took me by surprise, and a hope that Richarlison’s head had been turned by the interest from Barcelona.

As we reached Vicarage Road on the way to the ground, you could tell that it wasn’t one of the bigger clubs visiting, as there was only one tout in view and even he may just have been a bloke trying to offload a spare ticket.  As we reached Occupation Road, there seemed to be a big crowd blocking the way but, once we passed the first turnstile for the SEJ stand, the crowd reduced to usual size and we were soon through the turnstiles.  As I was unable to find a programme at the home tie against Tranmere and then threw coffee over the programme I bought at the away game, I went to Doreen Pym’s programme stand at the GT end of the Rookery to try to get replacements.  Sadly, they did not have either publication, but the journey was not wasted as I bumped into a friend on the way.  The detour and chat meant a delay in getting to my seat and, when I arrived, I was told that I had just missed the lovely Seb Prödl saying goodbye to the Watford fans.  That made me very sad, as I have a very soft spot for Seb.  I was greatly cheered when my lovely friend, Alice, later told me that she had made him some Vanillekipferl as a goodbye gift.  I am told that they went down very well with Seb and he kindly shared them with his countryman, Daniel Bachmann.

Celebrating Masina’s opening goal

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one enforced change from the Villa game with Kabasele in for Dawson, who was missing due to injury.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Chalobah, Capoue; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney.  It was great to see both Welbeck and Hughes on the bench, although we were short of defensive options with only Holebas included.  Former Watford starlet, Richarlison, started for Everton and was booed as he has been ever since he left.  Something that baffles me as we got very good money for him when he moved to Everton.

The visitors had the first chance of the game as Richarlison got on the end of a cross from Iwobi, but his shot flew over the bar.  At the other end a great corner from Masina was met by the head of Kabasele, but he couldn’t get his effort on target.  Christian was then in action at the other end as Richarlison tried to break into the box, but Kaba was on hand to steal the ball from him and snuff out the danger.  The Hornets took the lead after 10 minutes and it was a wonderful goal that started with Capoue playing a lovely cross-field pass to Deulofeu who brought the ball down before passing back to Masina who shot past Pickford into the opposite corner.

Celebrating Pereyra’s goal

The Hornets threatened again as Capoue played another lovely ball, this time for Pereyra, but Pickford was out to gather.  The visitors created a decent chance as Sidibé crossed for Calvert-Lewin, but the header was easy for Foster.  Off the pitch, the first sight of Danny Welbeck warming up was greeted with applause.  Watford had a chance to increase their lead when a free kick from Masina was cleared as far as Doucouré whose bicycle kick cleared the bar.  The hosts threatened again as Deulofeu found Doucouré on the edge of the box, but the shot was blocked at close range.  VAR was then invoked as a nasty looking tackle by Digne on Pereyra was checked, but no punishment ensued.  Maxi returned after treatment and exacted revenge on Digne.  Again, VAR was called into action but, again, the offence was not deemed worthy of a red card (or a yellow for that matter).  The second goal for the Hornets came after Deeney latched on to a loose ball and played a lovely pass to Pereyra who finished beautifully to put the Hornets in a commanding position with two minutes to go until half time.  The goal had been against the run of play, but it was all looking so positive at that point.  Sadly, 2-0 is a dangerous score and there followed two minutes of madness.  The clock had reached 45 minutes when Everton won a corner.  The Watford defenders failed to clear and the ball pinged around the box until Mina turned it in.  It was a very scrappy goal to give away.  It got worse almost immediately as Everton won another corner, Sigurdsson’s delivery was met by Mina, who was allowed a free header which beat Foster to level the score.  The scorer was milking the celebrations right in front of the 1881 which irritated me immensely even if it is likely that he had been jeered by the home fans.

Everton Speedo Mick interviewed by Emma

There was shock at half time, we had appeared to be in control of the game and had been defending very solidly, but that was all undone by two corners when the defence went missing.  So frustrating in such an important game.

The first topic of the half time interviews was the National Citizen Service (NCS), a programme for 15-17 year-olds which has been one of the projects run by Watford Community Trust.  It is a very positive project that has benefited many local youngsters.

The legend on duty was Gary Porter talking about his distinguished career with the Hornets.  He was a part of some amazing teams and is very fondly remembered, although it shocks me to realise how long ago he retired as I think of him as one of the youngsters!

Last up was Everton Speedo Mick who is walking 1000 miles from John O’Groats to Lands End while dressed in Speedo swimming trunks to raise money for Leave the Light On which contributes to community projects that help disadvantaged young people.  His excitement at Everton’s comeback was a little hard to listen to, but I let him off as it is a tremendous charity https://www.gofundme.com/f/speedomick-1000-ml-charity.  I was a little embarrassed when the two guys in front of us commented on my taking photos.  It was for the blog, honest, not because I want photos of a middle-aged bloke in a Speedo.

Pereyra on the ball

The visitors had the first chance of the second half and, again, it was from a set piece.  Sigurdsson took a free kick which reached Calvert-Lewin, whose header was deflected over the bar.  There was then a tussle between Deeney and Mina, not the first of the afternoon.  The Everton man was rolling around trying to get Troy into trouble and Troy’s look of contempt mirrored my feelings.  Nigel Pearson made his first substitution just before the hour mark as Chalobah made way for Welbeck.  Nate did not look happy at being replaced, but the introduction of Welbeck was warmly received by the crowd.  The first booking of the game came soon after and went to Delph for a trip on Pereyra.  The visitors made two changes in quick succession bringing Kean and Schneiderlin on for Iwobi and Sigurdsson.  There were a couple of rash-looking tackles from the Hornets as Everton broke forward, but the referee finally blew up for a nudge on Richarlison on the edge of the box, with Masina booked for the most innocuous foul in that sequence.  The resulting free kick was taken by Digne who hit it straight into the wall.  With 20 minutes remaining, the visitors were reduced to ten men after Delph was shown a second yellow card for a clumsy foul on Capoue.  The resulting free kick was repelled as far as Capoue who shot over the target.

Danny Welbeck back in action

Each side then made a change with Keane replacing Calvert-Lewin for the visitors and Success on for Pereyra for the home side.  The first contribution from Success was unimpressive, he lost out to Sidibé and so brought him down and was shown a yellow card for his trouble.  Pearson made his final change replacing Deulofeu with Pussetto.  Geri left the pitch by the goal in front of the Rookery and walked half the length of the stand where he was applauded the whole way around but didn’t once acknowledge the crowd.  Late in the game the Hornets had a few decent chances to regain the lead.  First a corner from Masina was cleared to Doucouré on the edge of the box, his shot was hit well but flew wide of the far post.  The next yellow card went to Mina, who was seriously annoying me, so I was glad to see him booked for a foul on Success.  The Hornets threatened again as a lovely free kick from Pussetto was punched clear to Capoue who squared for Doucouré whose shot was wide of the near post.  The visitors picked up another yellow card as Holgate was booked for a foul on Doucouré.  There was another half chance to grab a winner for the Hornets when they got the ball into the Everton box, but no Watford man could get a meaningful touch on it.  The Hornets had been pushing for the winner, but it was the visitors who took all three points with a goal in the 90th minute.  Masina lost out in the middle of the pitch, Richarlison advanced and played in Kean who moved the ball on to Walcott, at first he appeared to have run wide of the goal, but that proved to be wishful thinking on my part as he finished past Foster.  There was a roar of encouragement from the Watford faithful as the fourth official held up the board indicating 5 minutes of added time, but the Hornets created nothing of note in added time and the final whistle went to boos from the home fans.

Pussetto lines up a free kick

The reaction after the game was mostly anger.  Listening to fans as we left the ground, Nigel Pearson has gone from football genius to being utterly clueless.  Again, the withdrawal of Chalobah was questioned especially as he didn’t take advantage of the presence of Hughes on the bench who would have firmed up the midfield, but that could have been criticised as like-for-like when Pearson was making a change to the formation.  But most of the fury was directed towards the appearance of Success.  Given the amount of criticism Gray has attracted recently, I was rather amused to hear a comment that Andre must wonder what he has to do if Isaac is coming on ahead of him.  My assumption was that Success was brought on due to his strength and, given that Gray was awful at Tranmere, the greater likelihood that he would cause the Everton defence problems.  But when he does nothing it looks to be a poor substitution.

My great annoyance was at the fact that we have lost to Everton on three occasions this season and they haven’t had to play well in any of those games.  On Saturday we beat ourselves and that hurts.  We had scored two lovely goals in the first half and had kept Everton completely at bay through effective defending, but that was undone with some sloppy play at the end of the half.  Watford looked most likely to win the game late on, but we wasted our chances and one mistake allowed Everton the opportunity to grab the winner.

So, we are back in the bottom three and the visit to Brighton is looking to be crucial, given that it is followed by a trip to Old Trafford and the visit of Liverpool.  Consider me fickle, but I hate football again.

A Disappointing Set Back in Birmingham

Craig Dawson

Another Tuesday lunchtime, another trip to Euston to travel to a match.  On this occasion, at least, I was confident of seeing a game.

I arrived in Birmingham bright and early.  It was another lovely day, although rather icy.  I dropped my overnight things off at the hotel.  I had stayed in London on Monday night, after a trip to the theatre and, on arrival, was horrified to realise that I had forgotten to bring my yellow shirt.  I was vainly hoping that we would have an outing for the away shirt, but a check on the Premier League twitter feed confirmed that I would be unsuitably attired for the game.  At least I had two yellow, red and black scarves with me.

Having dropped my bag, I headed for the designated pub to find the rest of my party already gathered at a table near the door.  The usual suspects were joined by Jacque’s colleague, Adam, a Villa fan who was braving our company again so soon after the home game.  After a couple of pints and a lovely meal with great company, we set off to catch the bus to Villa Park.   For some reason, I found myself in a very irritable mood on the bus (not that unusual for me, but there was no reason for it on this occasion).  So, when I met Kate on the way in and she said, “I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I couldn’t help agreeing with her.  When we took our seats in the row second from the back of the lower tier, I was delighted to see that the seats behind me were occupied by the family who sit in front of me in the Rookery.  On National Hug Day, the greeting was as warm as I would have hoped.

Ben Foster takes a goal kick

Team news was that Pearson had made just the one enforced change from the weekend with the injured Sarr replaced by Pereyra.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Dawson, Mariappa; Capoue, Chalobah; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney.

The game kicked off and the Hornets created an early chance as Deulofeu met a cross from Pereyra, but the header was easily caught by Reina in the Villa goal.  Watford had another half chance as Mariappa crossed for Deeney who tried to side foot home but, again, the Villa keeper wasn’t overly tested.  The home side then had a couple of chances from corners but, first Konsa, and then Hause headed wide of the target.  Villa’s next chance came as Grealish crossed for Trézéguet whose shot was blocked.  On the half hour mark, Pereyra picked up the ball on the edge of the area turned and shot but his effort was blocked.  At the other end, Targett took a shot from the edge of the area, but it was straight at Foster.  Soon after, the ball reached El Ghazi in the box, but his shot was over the bar from what looked like an offside position (the lino on our side was struggling to keep up).  Targett then tried his luck, but his shot was from an awkward angle and he was unable to get it on target.

Celebrating Deeney’s goal

The Hornets took the lead on 38 minutes when a lovely cross from Deulofeu was met by the head of Deeney who beat Reina at the Holte End, which will have amused him greatly.  It certainly prompted massive celebrations in the away section and a loud chorus of “That boy Troy Deeney, he hates the Villa.”  We should have been two up before half time as Deulofeu went on a tremendous run, it was clear that the angle was too acute and he had two team mates in the box ready for a tap-in, but he proceeded to take the shot himself and only found the side-netting.  The last action of the half was the first caution of the game which went to Mings for a late foul on Doucouré.

The half time whistle went to boos from the home supporters.  It had been an even contest and very dull.  The Hornets were somewhat lucky to be ahead at the break although they had created the best chances of the afternoon and, if Deulofeu had been less selfish, they could have been two goals to the good.

The half time entertainment was a contest to get a football onto a target on the pitch with prizes assigned according to where the ball stopped.  One bloke won a season ticket for next season.  I was going to make a joke here about feeling sorry for him, but my experience of Villa fans is that they are great and I am sure he was delighted.

Pereyra alert in the Villa box

The first chance of the second half went to the home side from a free kick but it was headed clear by Dawson.  Villa threatened again from a corner but Trézéguet’s delivery was headed over by Hause.  Then a dangerous looking shot from distance by Konsa flew well wide of the far post.  The Hornets should have scored a second when a cross from Deulofeu was parried by Reina to Deeney who had two chances to finish from close range, but Reina did brilliantly to keep them out.  The first substitution of the game was made by the home side as Drinkwater made way for Luiz.  Watford threatened again with a lovely one-two between Pereyra and Doucouré that was stopped by an excellent tackle from Guilbert.  Villa had a half chance when Targett met a deep cross, but the header was easy for Foster.  There was controversy on 63 minutes as Mings stopped an attack by Deulofeu by handling the ball.  The Villa man had already been booked, so was lucky not to see red.  Villa drew level on 68 minutes when Grealish played in Targett whose shot was saved by Foster, but the ball dropped to Luiz who hit the target.  The goal felt like it had been coming as Watford had been sitting back and giving the home side too much space.  The Hornets had a chance to hit back from a corner, Reina spilled Chalobah’s delivery but was able to recover before any Watford player could capitalise.

Capoue and Doucoure leave the lads to take a free kick

With 15 minutes remaining, Pearson made his first change as Chalobah made way for Pussetto.  I thought it was a slightly odd substitution, I would have taken Pereyra off.  A worrying Villa attack was stopped when Foster came out to gather the ball before Trézéguet could reach it.  Cathcart was booked for a foul on Grealish during the build-up.  Villa then made a second substitution replacing Trézéguet with Vassilev.  With 10 minutes remaining, Mariappa tried to test the Villa keeper with a cross, but Reina was able to gather and Doucouré was booked for colliding with the keeper as he tried to challenge for the ball.  With nine minutes to go, Pearson made a second substitution replacing Pereyra with Gray.  Andre was immediately involved in a very promising move as he raced forward, with Deulofeu in close attendance, but his square pass to his teammate was very poor and was easily cut out.  The Hornets created a better chance as Doucouré crossed for Pussetto who headed back towards Gray but Andre couldn’t quite reach the ball and again it was cleared.  There were shouts for a penalty as Grealish tumbled in the box, but the referee waved the protests away.  Pearson made a final change in time added on replacing Deulofeu with Kabasele.  Unfortunately the substitution did not shore up the defence as he would have hoped as Watford failed to clear a free kick and a shot from Konsa deflected off Mings and past Foster to give the home side the win with the last kick of the game.  It was a cruel end to the match and to Watford’s great run.

Masina and Deulofeu prepare to take a free kick

We left the ground feeling very disappointed and had to walk through a crowd of exuberant Villa fans chanting, “Deeney what’s the score?”  On that note, it was lovely to see Villa fans on social media after the game singing the praises of Troy for stopping to have his photo taken with them.  A true pantomime villain who loves the back and forth with the fans.  We were quickly back on the bus to the city centre and retired to a pub to drown our sorrows.

That was probably the worst performance that we have put in since Nigel Pearson took over.  We greatly missed Sarr, who has been superb in recent weeks and has been frightening the life out of opposition defences.  But my biggest beef was that we sat back too much and allowed Villa space.  At our place, we had pressed them and got under the skin of Grealish who became petulant and increasingly ineffective.  He had a much better game at Villa Park and they looked stronger as a result.  But, looking at the balance of chances, it was the old story of not making the most of our best opportunities.  Had we converted those chances, we would have taken the three points, although a lot of the credit for that has to go to Pepe Reina.

So, we end the evening back in the relegation zone, if only on goal difference, and my nerves started jangling again.  My angry reaction after the game, that that was what happens if you become complacent, was directed at myself rather than any of the players.  But we have some very winnable games coming up, so we just need to forget this set back and continue playing as well as we have been in the last month.  If we do that, we will be fine.

 

No Goals, Just Scarves

On Tuesday lunchtime I left work knowing that a waterlogged pitch at Tranmere meant that the game was in doubt.  Unfortunately, I was booked on an early train and was probably just passing through Hemel when I saw the first report of the postponement.  As the first stop for the train was Stafford, I had some time to contemplate whether to turn around but decided to finish the trip, just in case there was a rapid rearrangement.  There wasn’t, so it ended up being a very expensive trip to the cinema (I saw “Knives Out” which was great fun).

Mike and I meeting Aidy Mariappa and Daniel Bachmann

On Wednesday evening (after my return from Liverpool!) I attended an amazing evening at Vicarage Road highlighting the work of the Community Sports and Education Trust.  Instead of talking about their own work, they invited a number of participants to talk about their experiences, interviewed by Emma Saunders, who did a fantastic job.  There was a guy who took part in the Shape Up programme who went from being a 24 stone couch potato to running a half marathon.  A guy with mental health problems who has gained new confidence from the Man Up! events.  A young boy who was being bullied and attended events that allowed him to gain confidence to the extent that he is now a mentor for younger children.  A lad from the NCS who got so much out of it that he is now an advocate encouraging other youngsters to join in.

The star of the show was Geoff, who has attended the Golden Memories project for dementia sufferers, and it has brought a smile back to his face after he and his wife moved to a care home.  His joy at the experience was palpable as he quite rightly said that 2 hours was not enough.

It was lovely to see Rita Taylor there with daughter Karen and granddaughter Rhianna.  Rita attended a Golden Memories session as a guest to share some memories and has returned as a volunteer and can be found making tea for the participants.

Rita and GT

Adrian Mariappa and Adekite Fatuga-Dada talked about their experiences as youngsters at Trust schemes.  It was the first time that Adekite realised that she wasn’t the only girl who played football and allowed her to progress to playing for Watford Ladies.  Daniel Bachmann was there as someone who has attended events as an enthusiastic volunteer, which is great to see.

So much credit has to go to Rob Smith who has worked tirelessly for many years to make the Trust such an amazing success.  The Trust is a charity and self-financing and the work that it does is incredibly valuable for the community.  This evening was a timely reminder of that.

I had a chat with Daniel Bachmann afterwards, who was absolutely lovely, although I was very confused by his Manchester accent (he came to England to play for Stoke when he was 17).  But the little moment that reminded me why I love this club so much was when Aidy Mariappa put the chairs away after the event.  Pampered Premier League footballers?  There are some who are still treasures.

Scarves out for GT in the SEJ Stand

On to the weekend and Saturday lunchtime games are the worst.  I went to the theatre on Friday night (Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida, very good but very bloody), so decided to stay in London to shorten the journey on Saturday morning.  Don had passed on the news that the West Herts was opening early, so I arrived just before 10:30 to find our table already nearly full although there were an unusual number of coffee cups on the table.  I decided that it was late enough for a beer but was glad when Jacque arrived just after me, so I wasn’t the only one with a pint.  We left earlier than usual (persuading Mike that there wasn’t time for another drink) in order to be at the ground in time for the tribute to GT.  Fans had been instructed to bring their scarves and, as I passed the Hornet Shop, I noticed that his statue was suitably attired.

Team news was that the team was unchanged from the Bournemouth game.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Dawson, Mariappa; Capoue, Chalobah; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.  By all accounts, Pearson had been happy with his first sight of new signing Ignacio Pussetto, and he was given a place on the bench.

When I took my seat, I asked the guy that sits next to me whether he had a scarf with him (he doesn’t usually wear one).  He didn’t so, as I had last year, I offered him my spare to hold up as the teams came out.  It was a lovely sight with all the stands displaying our brightly coloured scarves.  Rather heart-warming to see a number in the away end hold up theirs and those that had no scarves were applauding enthusiastically.  It was very moving to see.

Chalobah and Deeney

The teams swapped ends before kick-off which tends to elicit a groan from Watford fans as it is perceived as unlucky.  The game kicked off and the Hornets carved out a very early chance as Deulofeu ran the length of the pitch and unleashed a shot that flew just wide.  Soon after, the visitors had the first shot on target, but the effort from Son was easily caught by Foster.  The visitors started to dominate and, from a corner, Lamela’s delivery was punched out by Foster, but the ball found its way back to the Spurs man who shot wide of the far post.  Then a dangerous looking cross from Aurier was headed clear by Cathcart.  Spurs threatened again as a ball across the box reached Son who played it back to Tanganga whose shot from outside the area was straight at Foster.   The first quarter of an hour had been all Spurs, but then the Hornets had a great chance after Doucouré dispossessed a Spurs player on  the wing, advanced and crossed for Sarr who took a touch when he maybe should have just tried a shot as his effort flew high and wide.  The first booking of the game went to Tanganga who took down Sarr after a poor clearance dropped to the Watford man.  The foul meant that the Hornets had a free kick on the edge of the box, but the delivery from Chalobah was poor and flew high and wide of the near post.  Just before the half hour mark, there was a break in the game as the referee walked off the pitch.  I thought that maybe he was injured, but it seems that it was his communication with Stockley Park that was suffering.  It seemed an age before his equipment was repaired, so the fans from all stands amused themselves with a chant of “It’s not football anymore.”

Foster takes a free kick

The game restarted with a chance for Son who tried a shot from the edge of the box to the near post, but Foster made the save.  There then came a flurry of chances for the Hornets.  First Sarr crossed for Deeney whose flick towards goal was blocked.  Then Deulofeu got into the box and hit a shot at the near post but it was deflected into the side netting.  From the corner, Chalobah’s delivery looked to be sneaking in until it was tipped over by Gazzaniga.  The first card for the Hornets was a typical Capoue booking as he was cautioned for a sliding tackle on Lo Celso.  The visitors looked certain to take the lead when Alli played a through ball to Lucas, who had the goal in his sights when Foster came out to make the block.  They had another great opportunity when a long ball found Son in the box, but his volley flew well over the crossbar.  Watford then created a decent chance when Chalobah crossed for Deeney, whose header was on target, but lacked power and was easily caught by Gazzaniga.  There was one last chance in the half as a cross from Sarr was headed clear by a defender, it fell to Capoue on the edge of the box, but he couldn’t get a shot in.  Bizarrely, given how long the referee had spent off the pitch to fix his VAR communication, only two minutes of time were added at the end of the half, which finished goalless.

Gathering in the Spurs box

The guest at half time was Allan Nielsen who had played for both teams.  He talked very fondly of his time working with Graham Taylor.  He also spoke of being overwhelmed by the ovation that the fans gave him at his last game for the club.  It was rather lovely that he had a similar experience on this occasion.

The second half started with a great chance for the Hornets as Sarr crossed for Doucouré at the near post, but he could only find the side netting.  Then there was a terrific chance as Deeney headed the ball down for Sarr, but he shot wide of the near post when he really should have hit the target.  Spurs then threatened with a counterattack, Son crossed for Alli whose header cleared the bar.  At the other end Deeney tried a shot from the edge of the area that was deflected just wide of the goal.  Adam Masina was having another good game in defence and he came to the Hornets’ rescue cutting out a great ball before it reached Son in the box.  Then, suddenly, it all kicked off.  There was some Grade A handbags between Doucouré and Winks before Vertonghen joined in and VAR got very excited about possible violent conduct but, while this message was still on the big screen, the ref had shown the two original combatants a yellow card and indicated that the game should continue.

Doucoure and Masina

Spurs had another chance to take the lead after a great run from Son, but he shot just over the bar.  Then a shot from Lamela was blocked by Dawson and went out for a corner.  It was right in front of us and there was complete bafflement when there was an announcement that VAR was checking for a penalty for an infringement (handball) that nobody had even suspected, the decision (no penalty) came up almost immediately.  From the opposite end of the pitch, Deulofeu’s shot looked like it was going in but had appeared to rebound to safety.  There was much excitement among the home fans when the referee pointed to the spot as the shot had been blocked by the arm of Vertonghen.  The excitement was short-lived as Deeney stepped up to take the spot kick but Gazzaniga went the right way and made the save.  The first substitution was made by the visitors on 72 minutes as Eriksen came on in place of Alli.  At the same time Vicarage Road rose to pay tribute to Graham Taylor.  Scarves were again held aloft, and my neighbour took the other end of mine.  Again, the Spurs fans joined in with applause.  I hope that Rita and Karen sitting in the stands were comforted by the outpouring of love from the crowd.  During the tribute Spurs were attacking at the Rookery end but, thankfully, it came to nothing.  The Hornets had another chance as Deulofeu played the ball across the field to Sarr whose shot was high and wide.

Cathcart, Masina and Deulofeu prepare to meet a corner

Pearson then made his first substitution replacing Chalobah, who left the field to a huge ovation, with Pereyra.  At the same time Fernandes came on for Lo Celos for the visitors.  Lamela had a chance to break the deadlock, but his shot was from a tight angle and he turned it over the bar. At the other end, a powerful shot from Capoue was blocked.  Rather worryingly Sarr went down clutching his hamstring and had to be replaced by new signing Pussetto who came on to make his debut with two minutes left on the clock.  Lamela had another chance to grab the three points with a shot from distance that he curled well wide of the target.  Into injury time and the ball was prodded into the Watford box, there was a scramble to clear it but Lamela looked to have got the crucial touch until new boy Pussetto appeared to clear the ball off the line.  From behind the goal it didn’t look to have crossed the line and the referee waved his ‘watch’ at the protesting Spurs players to indicate that they had not scored.  That was the last action of the game.  It had been a decent goalless draw.  The visitors had started the game strongly with the Hornets sitting very deep, but Watford came back into it and had a couple of decent chances.  Both defences played pretty well, and the forwards from both sides were very wasteful.

Pereyra racing free

It was a happy group that gathered back in the West Herts to follow the 3pm kick-offs and cheer on the teams playing those around us in the table.  I must admit that I was surprised to see the graphic showing the position of the ball relative to the goal line for that chance just at the end.  The ball overlapped the line by 10mm, so Pussetto’s timing was impeccable.

It is hard to fathom that a month ago we despaired of seeing the Hornets win again this season.  It is a measure of the difference that Nigel Pearson has made that I travelled to this game thinking that we could get something out of it and finished the day a little disappointed that we hadn’t taken all three points.  We have some very winnable games coming up, so we need to keep up this momentum.

While all is right with the world on the pitch, this week was special for the off-pitch moments.  Seeing the great work of the Trust and the outpouring of love during the tributes to Graham Taylor reminded me (if a reminder were needed) of what a special man he was.  He has left a legacy at Watford that stretches into the community and for that we will always remember him with love.

A Win to Make GT Proud

My favourite photo with GT and Rita (and Don)

The nightmares started on Friday night.  I have a recurring dream in which I am at a match but am unable to see the pitch from my vantage point which is often in a stand that is facing away from the pitch.  On this occasion, the Watford crowd at Bournemouth had been housed in a container.  Now, there have been some issues with our fans at Bournemouth in the past, but putting us in a metal box seemed a little excessive.  Saturday night I struggled to sleep but, when I did, I had my other recurrent dream of trying and failing to get to a destination.  These are usually football related, although this time the destination was a bit vague, but I knew what it meant.  There is quite a lot going on in my life at the moment.  I am in the process of buying a flat and readying a house for sale.  Work is busy with some crucial deadlines coming up.  But I am having nightmares about a football match.  I fear that there is something wrong with my priorities.

I left home at 8:40 to catch the train.  It seemed a little early on a Sunday, but I could hardly complain as Jacque had to leave Leighton Buzzard on a rail replacement bus at 6-ish in order to make the connection with the train she had booked from London.  Needless to say, at that hour on a Sunday there were few people on the platform for the train to Slough and I was able to occupy my ‘lucky’ seat, so all was right with the world.  As I checked social media it was full of fellow Watford fans expressing their love for Graham Taylor on the anniversary of his passing.  This added an extra significance to the day.

Capoue prepares for kick-off

We had arranged to meet in the usual pub but, due to the 2pm Sunday kick-off, the timing of my arrival meant that I would arrive before the pub’s scheduled opening time.  Alice was arriving by car at a similar time, so arranged to meet me at the station so that we could kill some time together.  Just before my train arrived in Bournemouth, there was a message from Pete telling me that he had found a table in the pub, which was already open.  So, I met Alice and, after a short walk, we had a drink and a seat in the pub.  My recollection had been that the pub menu was rather limited (mostly burgers), so I asked whether they had any food on.  The news that there were a couple of roasts or a burger if we wanted one was very welcome.  I had had no breakfast, so the lovely plate of meat and several veg which was served to me set me up very nicely for the afternoon.

I left myself plenty of time to get to the ground and through the security that is always in place in Bournemouth.  Thankfully, on this occasion, we arrived to find a very short queue and were soon through the turnstiles.  It was Alice’s birthday, and she had left for the ground a little earlier than I did to meet some friends.  When I found her inside with Mr Fincham, a man known for starting chants, she recounted that he had regaled her with a booming chorus of Happy Birthday that was soon picked up as the entire concourse joined in, much to Alice’s embarrassment/delight.  There was also another song being sung in the concourse, “Super Nigel Pearson” which was catchy and simple and, by the time I took my seat in the stand, I knew (nearly all) the words.  Our party soon gathered in the stands including my niece who lives in Bournemouth so it was a home game for her.

Doucoure and Lerma tangle

Team news was that Pearson had made two enforced changes from the Wolves game with Masina and Mariappa in for Kabasele (suspended) and Femenía (injured).  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Masina, Cathcart, Dawson, Mariappa; Capoue, Chalobah; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.  I was disappointed to see that Aké had returned for Bournemouth.  I still hurts that he is playing for them rather than us and he always plays brilliantly against us.

The Hornets made a bright start to the game as Deeney played the ball out to Doucouré who put in a low cross but Deulofeu, who was charging into the box, could not reach it.  Then Deeney released Sarr on the wing, the first touch was a bit heavy but he managed to win a corner that came to nothing.  The first chance for Bournemouth came as a miskick allowed the ball into the Bournemouth box, it looked worrying for the Hornets as Solanke almost reached it, but he slipped over and Foster was able to gather.  Then Bournemouth won a free kick about 30 yards out.  Harry Wilson blasted the ball towards the Watford goal, but Foster managed to push the ball around the post.   Then there was a bit of niggle between Lerma and Doucouré which threated to get out of hand and Mike Dean had words, but no cards were shown.  The first caution of the game went to Adam Smith for a nasty looking tackle on Sarr.

Celebrating Doucoure’s goal

The Hornets had a decent chance on 18 minutes when Doucouré found Deulofeu at the near post, but stand-in keeper, Travers, was able to block the shot.  The resulting corner was met by the head of Masina whose effort flew wide of the far post.  The home side threatened again as a shot from distance by Harry Wilson was deflected for a corner.   With five minutes to go to half time Lerma got the ball in a dangerous position on the edge of the box, but his shot was woeful flying high into the stand behind the goal.  It was the Hornets who took the lead just before half time.  Francis played a back pass to Travers, Deulofeu closed him down forcing a hasty clearance that fell to Sarr who raced forward and crossed for Doucouré who controlled the ball before shooting past Travers and sending the travelling Hornets into delirium.  It was noted that, unlike previous visits, the goal was not greeted with a flare.  But, with my niece not making as many games this season, it was really lovely to share a goal celebration and hug with her.

Cathcart, Deeney and DAwson challenging in the Bournemouth box

So, we went into the break feeling very happy.  It hadn’t been a classic half of football, but there had been some very good signs and the goal had left us all feeling very positive.  The half time entertainment consisted of a “beer goggle challenge” in which disorientated fans tried to score a penalty against the mascot.  Most of the efforts were woeful and it was won by the Watford fans due to a single goal which followed a very clever run up and, it has to be said, he was the only fella who managed to get a decent strike on the ball.

The Hornets created the first goal-scoring opportunity of the second half as Sarr tried a shot from distance that deflected off Aké for a corner.  The Senegalese youngster then had a great chance to double Watford’s lead after receiving a pass from Deulofeu, but the shot was weak and easily cleared.  Then Bournemouth won a corner, but Fraser’s delivery was met by a header from Wilson that flew over the bar.  A lovely passing move from the Hornets deserved more as Sarr found Doucouré who fed Deulofeu, but the final shot was poor with Geri shooting high and wide of the near post.  Then Sarr found Deeney who tried to lift the ball over the defence, but the effort was cleared and a frustrated Deeney was booked for pulling Harry Wilson down as he attempted to escape.

Celebrating Deeney’s strike

The home side made a double substitution on the hour mark bringing Billing and Cook on for Lerma and Gosling.  Billing’s first contribution was a dangerous run into the Watford box that was stopped by a brilliant tackle from Capoue.  Chalobah then tried his luck with a shot from the edge of the area that cleared the target.  The second goal for the Hornets came on 65 minutes after Sarr rode a tackle and made his way to the bye-line, he cut the ball back towards Doucouré who was crowded out but managed to divert the ball to Deeney who came flying in and powered the ball past Travers.  This time a flare did go off, so we were unable to see the restart.  But the smoke had cleared by the time Deulofeu went on a terrific run into the opposition box, his shot was blocked but the ball rebounded to him and he crossed for Deeney who volleyed goalwards but Travers made the save.  At the other end there was a half chance for the home team as a headed clearance fell to Billing but he shanked his shot high and wide.  As the clock ticked over towards 72 minutes the travelling Hornets blasted out a loud chorus of one Graham Taylor in memory and appreciation of Watford’s greatest ever manager.  The Hornets created another great chance as Deulofeu found Deeney in the box, the ball was returned and Geri hit a wonderful shot that a defender managed to head to safety.

Celebrating Pereyra’s goal

With 15 minutes remaining, Bournemouth made their final substitution replacing Harry Wilson with Surridge.  Soon after, Pereyra replaced Sarr and then Quina came on for Doucouré.  I noticed that Pearson had given both of the players who were substituted a cuddle and talked with them as they came off.  What I hadn’t noticed, but have read subsequently, was that Sarr had reacted badly to his withdrawal and that Pearson had a word with Doucouré who went and chatted to the youngster and smoothed things over.  Following his introduction, Pereyra was immediately involved with an uncharacteristic (and impressive) defensive tackle.  In time added on Deulofeu made way for Gray.  Then Pereyra went on a storming run before crossing for Gray who was tackled, but managed to get a shot in that was cleared off the line but Pereyra was following up, chested it down and volleyed for our third which extinguished any lingering doubts about where the points were going.

The final whistle went to loud cheers and hugs and Alice declaring “Happy birthday to me!”.

Chalobah takes a corner

There was much excitement after the game as phones were proffered displaying the table showing Watford out of the relegation zone for the first time this season.  Nobody in the away end wanted to head for the exits as we stayed to cheer our heroes.  The Nigel Pearson chant had had a good airing, but there was always time for another chorus as well as chants for Deeney, Doucouré and anyone else who attracted our attention.  Then lovely Nate Chalobah came over and pumped his fists at the crowd and was greeted with a cheer.  A repeat fist pump elicited the same reaction.  He headed away from us and the crowd responded with ‘oooooooohhhh’, he turned around and pumped his fist and was rewarded with another cheer.  This was repeated another couple of times before he reached Pearson in the centre of the field and the two of them pumped their fists in unison.  I know that this loses a lot in the telling but it was a gorgeous moment and I had a tear in my eye at the togetherness.

As we made our way out of the ground, there were more celebrations with broad smiles and warm hugs with friends.

We headed back to the pub for a celebratory pint/glass of wine and to cheer City on against Villa.  It felt odd to be cheering one of the bigger teams against one that was struggling but needs must.  The crowd in the pub was a mix of fans of the two teams and was absolutely lovely.  The landlady even commented that she was sure we were enjoying our day after the result.

Adam Masina

The post-match discussion centred around how impressive our team had been.  There were times when we played some absolutely gorgeous football and the team are actually playing as a team.  A criticism earlier in the season had been that they were playing a lot of clever passes that just went to the opposition.  On this occasion there was some exquisite passing and it was a joy to watch.  The defence had been really solid and there has to be a special mention for Adam Masina, who was quite brilliant, as well as Dawson who has turned into the solid defender that we were expecting when he arrived.  The midfield was magnificent.  Capoue was excellent as always, Doucouré is back to his best after a terrible start to the season, but the special joy for me was seeing Chalobah finally putting in imperious performances.  I had worried that, after too many injuries, he would never return to his best but his recent performances have been just wonderful to watch.  Sarr started a little slowly and seemed to be struggling against Aké in the first half, but once he started taking on the defenders he was brilliant and made two of our three goals.  Similarly, Deulofeu wasn’t getting as much of the ball as he would have liked, but he worked his socks off and was a constant threat to the Bournemouth defence.  Then there is Troy Deeney.  During his absence with injury there were some that doubted that his return would make that much of a difference as he was not the goal scoring phenomenon that he had been.  He has proved all the nay-sayers wrong as his organisation and leadership has made a huge difference.  Of course, I cannot finish this without heaping praise upon Nigel Pearson.  Before he arrived, we were watching a team of talented individuals who had lost their way.  He has added a focus and organisation that has transformed those individuals into a formidable team and watching Watford is an absolute joy again.

We headed home at a reasonable time and I decided to accompany my friends on the London train as far as Basingstoke rather than taking the (slightly earlier) train directly to Reading.  It was only when we took our seats in cattle class that they all mentioned that they had first class tickets and were slumming it for me.  Still we had a great time eulogising our performance, watching the highlights and listening to Jon Marks’ commentary for the goals.  We were also joined by another regular away fan and discovered that we all had a mutual dislike for ‘plucky’ Bournemouth and their manager and how special a win over them felt.

When I changed trains at Basingstoke I was left alone with my thoughts.  This was one of the most enjoyable days out this season.  The game was a “six-pointer” against another team who are struggling and we beat them comprehensively.  The talk after the game was of a top half finish, which may be a stretch but does not sound impossible as it would have done a couple of months ago.  But, on the anniversary of Graham Taylor’s passing, we reflected on a team who worked hard and worked together and a fanbase that were totally engaged and felt part of the team.  It was a performance on and off the pitch that would have made GT proud and that is the ultimate praise from me.

An Impressive Start to the New Year

The quiz winners

Last October, the City ‘Orns team won the Watford Quiz Night (I am still not sure how that happened).  Our prize was hospitality for the Wolves game on New Year’s Day.  As I couldn’t find a taker for my season ticket, I released it.  When I received the email acknowledging my ‘non-attendance’, it was all I could do not to respond to tell them that it wasn’t that I wouldn’t be attending, but I had a ticket for hospitality.  Thankfully I was able to convince myself that that may come across as just a little obsessive.

I arrived in Watford at my usual time for a matchday but, unlike the bustle of a Saturday, the town was deserted.  As Thursday was a workday, I decided to stay in Watford, so I dropped my bag at the hotel before heading to the ground.  As I reached Market Street, the crowds increased but they were all wearing Wolves shirts and scarves and I realised that the away supporters’ coaches had arrived.  As I was a little too early for the opening of the hospitality lounge, I went into the Hornet shop.  I was looking for programme binders and searched high and low, but they were nowhere to be seen.  However, I did find some oven gloves.  For someone who rarely cooks and almost never uses the oven, I don’t know why I was so attracted to them, but they were a thing of beauty and I had to have them.  I then found the programme binders, and all was right with my world.  As I approached the till, I noticed the signs indicating “tax free” purchases.  I asked the woman behind the counter if we really have that many tourists visiting Vicarage Road.  Apparently, we do.  What has become of football?

With Tommy Smith

I was not (quite) the first in the Horizons lounge and was quickly joined by Alice, so we bought a couple of bottles of wine for the table (one red, one white) and toasted the new year.  Our party soon gathered.  As well as the quiz winners, Mike Raggett was there celebrating winning the Supporter of the Season.  He had brought Jacque as his plus one, so there was a good number of the West Herts contingent in attendance.

As part of the pre-match entertainment in the lounge there was an interview with Tommy Smith talking about the current squad and being very positive.  When he was finished, he was invited to our table and stayed for a long chat about anything and everything.  I liked his description of himself as a “lazy winger”, not quite the way that I remember him.  He never fancied being a coach or a manager, so went into estate agency and the business seems to be doing really well.  He seems pretty happy with life and is enjoying the ambassador/guest role as a way of staying connected with football.  I still think of Tommy Smith as a youngster, after all we went to the same secondary school, but I left the school the year after he was born.  It was a bit of a shock to realise that he will be 40 in May.

Team news was that Pearson had made two enforced changes with Dawson and Chalobah in for Mariappa (suspended) and Hughes (injured).  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Dawson; Capoue, Chalobah; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

The Rocket Men banner

We left the lounge in good time to find our seats, but the signs in the Upper GT concourse were somewhat misleading so we wandered around for a while before finding someone who could point us in the right direction.  When we finally found the seats, they were in the front row of the new overhang at the end of the stand right next to the 1881 in the Rookery, so a great spot.  I could see my family sitting in the middle of the Rookery and tried to attract their attention, but they were not looking in my direction and by the time I found my glasses to send a message they were in match mode and concentrating on events on the pitch.

As the teams came out, a RocketMan surfer banner featuring Elton and GT appeared over the centre of the Rookery.  On a normal day, I would have been under it, so it was nice to see the revelation of a new banner for once.  It was absolutely gorgeous.  I was a little late snapping the picture, so it doesn’t do it justice.

We had been told that there was a strict dress code in the lounge regarding replica shirts, but I had brought mine with me anyway and, as we were sitting in a Watford section rather than in the Directors’ area, I decided to put it on to watch the game and felt a whole lot better.

Dawson on the ball

Wolves came into the game having beaten Man City and run Liverpool very close, so my hopes of getting anything out of the game were pretty low, but it would certainly give us an indication of how the team were developing under Pearson.

The first chance of note came in the 12th minute and fell to the visitors as Coady played Doherty in and, with only Foster to beat, he looked odds on to open the scoring, but Ben came to meet him and made the save.  Jiménez then had a great chance and really should have scored, but his shot from the edge of the box flew wide of the far post.  Watford’s first meaningful attack came as Deulofeu played the ball out to Femenía who put in a lovely low cross but there was nobody there to meet it.  The Hornets threatened again as a shot from Deulofeu was blocked, the ball eventually found its way to Chalobah outside the box, his shot cleared the crossbar.  The first caution of the game went to Dawson for a foul on Neto.  The same two players then tangled in the Watford box, this time the referee booked the Wolves man for simulation.  Needless to say, there was a VAR check for a penalty, but the man in Stockley Park upheld the decision.

Celebrating Deulofeu’s strike

Watford had their best chance of the game so far when Deulofeu found Sarr who hit a decent shot which was saved by Rui Patricio.  We were not left to rue that miss for long as we took the lead a minute later.  This time Sarr played in Deulofeu who shot across the keeper into the opposite corner.  Cue mad celebrations in the posh seats.  Watford were in the ascendancy at this point and a lovely move deserved more, but the Wolves defence prevented the shot.  Then, from a throw, Deeney nodded the ball on to Deulofeu who could only shoot over the bar.  There was a great chance to increase the Hornets’ lead just before half time when a lovely flick from Deeney found Sarr but he could only hit the side netting.

The guest at half time was Filippo Galli, but I am ashamed to say that I headed into the lounge for dessert and another glass of wine.  I thought I was keeping an eye on the time, but suddenly the screen next to our table was showing the Wolves players coming back onto the pitch and so we had to make a rapid return to our seats.

Congratulating Doucoure

The visitors started the second half brightly as Neto broke forward but could only find the side netting with his shot.  Then Jiménez tried a shot from distance, but it cleared the bar.  Instead it was the Hornets who scored with their first shot of the half as Deulofeu went on a run and played in Doucouré whose shot took a slight deflection and beat Rui Patricio.  It was lovely to see Abdoulaye score on his birthday, so very kind of him to give us all a present.  My family had received the text with my location, so it was rather lovely to see them turn towards me so we could celebrate the goal together.  The visitors made an early double substitution with Neves and Vinagre replacing Bennett and Jonny.  Then there was disappointment for the home fans as Femenía, who has been brilliant lately, was forced to go off after tweaking a hamstring.  There seemed to be some confusion on the bench regarding his replacement as both Holebas and Masina appeared to be readying themselves to come on.  In the interim, Watford were playing with 10 men and Wolves were looking to pull a goal back.  First Traoré fed Moutinho, who hit a low shot which Foster was down to gather.  Then Vinagre tried his luck but, again, Foster was equal to it.  The Watford fans were yelling for someone to put the ball out so that the substitution could be made and there was a sigh of relief when Kabasele belted the ball into the stand and Holebas finally took to the field.

Troy wants the ball

But, as soon as we were back to full strength, the visitors pulled a goal back, as Neto hit a shot from distance that took a wicked deflection and beat Foster.  Wolves made their final substitution at the midpoint of the half, replacing the goalscorer, Neto, with Jota.  The substitute was soon involved as an attempt to escape upfield was stopped when he was pulled back by Kabasele.  The referee showed a yellow card, but the decision was referred to VAR which indicated that a red card should be shown and Kabasele was given his marching orders.  I have to say that this is the most ridiculous use of VAR.  The on-pitch referee had a good view of the incident and decided to book the player.  The referee in Stockley Park viewed the same infraction and decided it was worthy of a red card.  Had the original decision been a clear and obvious error?  Would the on-pitch referee have made a different decision had they seen the same footage as the VAR?  We have no idea, but the subjective decision of the VAR now overrules that of the man who is supposed to be refereeing the game.  On this occasion they made the mistake of playing footage of the incident on the big screen and this prompted howls of anger from the Rookery.  Interestingly the Wolves fans had been expressing their feelings about VAR while the incident was being reviewed.  They cheered briefly at the decision and then continued with their original theme at which point the whole ground was singing “F*ck VAR”.  Having expressed our frustration, we were then resigned to having 20 minutes left to play with 10 men.

The two goalscorers, Deulofeu and Doucoure

At this point, getting anything out of the game was looking very unlikely.  Thankfully, we passed the first hurdle as the free kick resulting from Kabasele’s foul hit the wall and was caught by Foster.  Unlike the Villa game when Pearson made a bold change after the sending off, his substitution on this occasion was more defensive as Masina took to the field in place of Deulofeu.  As they had in the previous game, a photo of GT was shown on the big screen on 72 minutes, this time with Watford and Wolves badges superimposed.  Many Wolves fans have very fond memories of GT and it had been lovely before the game seeing a number of them having their photos taken with his statue.  The visitors created a great chance after the ball appeared to be going out for a goal kick, but Vinagre belted after it and managed to keep it in play before putting in a lovely cross for Doherty whose header looked sure to level the score but Foster got a hand to it and kept it out.  Vinagre then had a chance of his own to draw the visitors level, but his shot was high and wide.  The Wolves man threatened again with a dangerous looking cross that almost caught Foster out, but the Watford keeper was fouled by Jiménez to relieve the pressure, if only briefly.

Troy holding the ball up as the clock wound down

The fourth official indicated five minutes of time added on.  At this time, it was all hands to the pump.  The Watford faithful were in excellent voice urging their team on as they tried to run the clock down.  Pearson tried to use up some time by making a substitution as Sarr was replaced by Pereyra.  When the board went up, the Watford youngster was near the corner flag between the Rookery and the GT stands so, under the new law, should have left the field on that side of the ground, but Deeney was chatting away to referee which distracted his attention allowing the youngster to amble off at his own pace.  Deeney had been trying to keep the ball in that area and was successful in winning a corner to waste some time.  He was instructing the young ball boy to take as long as possible to return the ball when it went off and took a short corner himself with no attacking intent.  Eventually he attracted the ire of the referee and was booked for his delaying tactics.  With a minute of added time remaining, Traoré was fouled by Doucouré giving the visitors a free kick to the right of the box from our perspective at the other end of the ground.  Capoue threw himself in front of the free kick which went out for a throw.  The visitors tried to get the ball back in play quickly, but were penalised for a foul throw, much to the amusement of the home crowd.  The visitors had one last chance to grab a point, but the shot from Neves flew over the bar and the final whistle went on an unlikely and very hard-fought victory for the Hornets.

The cheers were heartfelt and intense and, as I always do, I made sure to cheer every player off the pitch.

Pereyra makes a late appearance

We returned to the lounge and a celebratory glass or two of wine.  It had been a terrific game and a very impressive win against a Wolves team who are very good indeed.  Femenía had done a tremendous job in keeping Traoré quiet and we were under the cosh a bit after the double blow of his injury and the dismissal of Kabasele, but the team worked hard to keep their shape and were well worth the three points.  Deulofeu appears to be a new player under Pearson, an arm around his shoulder has given him more confidence in both himself and his team mates to the benefit of all of us.  Capoue was magnificent running the midfield and Chalobah put the disappointment of the early withdrawal on Saturday behind him to put in an assured performance.  Birthday boy Doucouré was back to his best and topped it off with a goal.

It is hard to believe that, up until the Saturday before Christmas we were winless at home.  We now have three home wins in a row and, given that the opposition included Man Utd and Wolves, that is very impressive indeed.  Similarly, having been concerned that we were becoming marooned at the foot of the table, we are now only two points off safety and are looking up the table with some confidence.  I have always thought this team were much better than the results indicated, but something was lacking.  Nigel Pearson seems to have given them a confidence in their abilities and a resilience that was too often missing earlier in the season.  There is a sense now that they playing as a team rather than as a collection of individuals and they now have the crowd back onside with them and football is fun again.  It looks like being a very happy new year for the Hornets.

Ending the Decade on a High

A festive Hornet shop

I left home bright and early aiming to be at the West Herts at midday.  Unfortunately, a signalling problem at West Drayton meant that the train that I had planned to catch from Slough was cancelled and I ended up on a train that had made an unscheduled stop due to congestion and kindly opened its doors to let the stranded passengers on.  It was slow progress and I finally arrived in the West Herts nearly three hours after leaving home and just in time to see Don leaving for the ground.

Most of our usual crowd were gathered at ‘our’ table with the addition of Jacque’s colleague, Adam, who is a Villa fan and was not relishing the prospect of the game, while the Watford contingent were fired up with some newfound optimism after the last couple of results.

The decision about what to have for lunch is usually quite simple but, on this occasion, I was in the horns of a dilemma.  I do love the jerk chicken but, for some reason, I had ordered sausage and chips before the Man United game, so that now qualified as the lucky lunch and had to be my order.

Capoue barking instructions

My sister had been unable to buy a ticket for the game, having left it late before finding that it was (surprisingly) sold out.  Luckily a friend wasn’t using hers and kindly offered to lend it to her.  We had arranged to meet Pete outside the Red Lion to pick up the spare ticket and I had handed my ticket to my sister so that she could sit with her daughter, so I left the West Herts not having a ticket for the game on my person, which induced a ridiculous mini panic until I spotted Pete and had Julie’s ticket in my hands (thank you, Julie).

Team news was that Pearson had made only one change with Chalobah making way for Doucouré on his return from suspension.  So, the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Cathcart, Kabasele, Mariappa; Capoue, Hughes; Deulofeu, Doucouré, Sarr; Deeney.

I tried to take a spare seat in my usual row to sit with the family, but the lad who usually sits there turned up just after kick-off so I belatedly made my way to the back of the Rookery to sit with Pete and experience a different (elevated) view of the field of play.

Celebrating Troy’s first goal

The Hornets started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead as a corner from Hughes was headed on by Deeney to Kabasele whose shot was stopped by a reaction save from Heaton in the Villa goal.  Then Deulofeu played a cross-field ball to Sarr, whose shot was blocked by a defender for a corner that came to nothing.  There was little more action of note until the 26th minute when Villa launched a counterattack, Hourihane crossed for Wesley who looked to have scored with a header from close range, but a brilliant save from Foster kept him out.  The visitors had a shout for a penalty when Wesley went down in the box following a challenge by Cathcart.  It was an age before the VAR check came up on the big screen and there were loud cheers when the referee indicated that we were to play on.  The Hornets fashioned another chance when a free kick from Hughes was punched clear by Heaton, but only as far as Doucouré whose shot was well over the bar.  Soon after, a free kick from Deulofeu was met by the head of Sarr but the ball ended up on the roof of the net.  Then Mariappa released Sarr who played a lovely low cross into the box but there was no Watford player to meet it, so it was easily gathered by Heaton.  Hughes was the next to try his luck with a shot from distance, but it was well over the target.  A lovely cross-field ball from Capoue found Sarr who cut into the box, but his shot was deflected for a corner.  Watford nearly broke the deadlock from the set piece when the ball dropped to Deeney, but he hit his shot straight at Heaton.  Watford finally took the lead in the 42nd minute when Villa gave the ball away, Doucouré tried a shot that was parried by Heaton to Deeney who put the ball under the Villa keeper and into the net.  So the Hornets went into half time with a narrow lead.  It was well deserved as, apart from the early shot from Wesley, it had been all Watford.

Gathering for a corner

The half time guest was Bill Shipwright, who played for Watford in the 50s so was way before my time and I couldn’t hear the interview.  There was also the added bonus of Christian Battochio who was on ticket duty for the 50/50 draw.

Pearson was forced to make a substitution at the break.  Hughes had picked up an injury towards the end of the first half and was replaced by Chalobah.  Villa also made a change bringing El Ghazi on for Jota.  The Hornets started the half in a positive manner with a shot from Doucouré that was deflected for a corner.  Watford threatened again as Capoue crossed for Sarr whose shot was blocked.  The first booking of the game went to Mariappa for a foul on Grealish.  Chalobah then had a chance to extend the Watford lead with a shot from distance that cleared the bar.  Disaster then befell the home side as Mariappa was shown a second yellow for a supposed foul on former Watford loanee, Lansbury.  From my vantage point it appeared that Lansbury ran into Mariappa (who doesn’t have a bad bone in his body), but pleas to the referee fell on deaf ears and the Hornets were reduced to 10 men with over half an hour of the game to go.  Pearson immediately made a change and you had to feel for Chalobah who was sacrificed for Dawson.

Sarr and Capoue are under there somewhere

Just as the nerves were starting to jangle, Deeney ran into the box and was brought down by Luiz.  It looked a bit soft from behind the goal but, having seen it later from another angle (as the VAR did), it was nailed on as Deeney was shoved to the ground.  There was a delay before the spot kick could be taken as Targett had been down injured.  There were some complaints from Villa players that the Hornets had played on around him, but they had had the opportunity to put the ball out of play when he first went down and had not done so, so their complaints were unwarranted.  Targett was replaced by Guilbert before the penalty could be taken.  Then Troy stepped up and blasted the ball down the middle to put the Hornets two goals up and ease my nerves somewhat.  The nerves were properly calmed on 70 minutes when Deeney released Capoue who played a gorgeous cross for Sarr who sped into the box to meet it and shot past Heaton.  My heart sank when VAR was invoked for a possible foul in the build-up and I begged for that gorgeous goal not to be disallowed.  After an agonising wait, the referee pointed to the centre circle and I punched the air again.  On 72 minutes, GT’s face came up on the big screen adorned with both Watford and Villa badges and the great man’s name was sung with gusto as I wiped a tear from my eye.

Capoue, Doucoure and Femenia prepare for a free kick

The visitors made a final change bringing Kodja on for Lansbury.  The referee’s card was out again as Capoue was booked for an altercation with Grealish.  On 77 minutes, Villa had their first on-target shot of the half as Hourihane tried his luck from the edge of the area, but his shot was straight at Foster.  There was another booking for the Hornets as Sarr was cautioned for trying to stop a Villa free kick.  When they finally took it, the ball was played out to Grealish whose shot flew wide of the near post.  The final change for the Hornets saw Masina on to replace Cathcart, who had been treated for an injury shortly before.  Grealish had another chance to pull a goal back with a shot from outside the area but, again, his effort flew wide of the near post.  There were two late bookings, one for each side.  First Deeney for bundling Luiz over.  Then Grealish for kicking the ball at Sarr as he lay on the ground.  The booking for the Villa captain was not before time as he had been behaving petulantly all afternoon.  There was a touch of handbags at this point, but no more cards were shown and the final whistle went on a very satisfying win for the Hornets.

Capoue readying to take a corner

I had rather enjoyed my afternoon watching the game from the gods.  It is nice to have a different perspective and it was noisier up there with the contribution of the few from the 1881 that moved just behind us.  My neighbours were rather lovely too.  A man with his two small daughters, which I always love to see.  Needless to say, when the crowd rose to their feet, which they did less often than they do further down where I usually sit, the father would lift the girl next to me off her seat so that she could see and I made myself useful by putting the seat down for her to stand on.  We had it down to a fine art by the end of the game.

Back to the West Herts and we were all smiles, apart from poor Adam who was very gracious in defeat admitting that they deserved nothing from the game.  It had been a tremendous performance from the Hornets who had run the show all afternoon.  The game took place less than 48 hours after the end of the United game and yet the players were all working very hard for the win and were resilient when down to 10 men.  Deulofeu worked his socks off and was unlucky not to have more influence on the game.  Femenía was tremendous again in the left back position.  Deeney was back to his battling self and was thoroughly enjoying answering the jeers of the Villa fans with his goals.  But it was Sarr who deservedly won man of the match for a wonderful performance.  It took him a while to learn how to play the English game, but he is now showing why the Pozzos paid all that money for him.  A month ago we felt doomed, now we are only 3 points away from safety and our prospects for the new year are looking increasingly positive.

So, following the last game of this decade, I can’t help but reflect on the past 10 years.  We started 2010 with Malky in charge and an unhappy ownership who were struggling for money.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, we then had the horror of Bassini’s reign, and I am so thankful that there were still good people on the board and among the staff who kept the club going.  The arrival of the Pozzos had some concerned about foreign ownership, but they have built the team and the infrastructure into one that can compete in the Premier League while still maintaining the feel of a community club and for that I will be eternally grateful.  While the start to this season was dreadful, we go into 2020 with a spirit of optimism and I look forward to more wonderful adventures over the next 10 years following my team.