Having had plenty of notice of the pre-season tour this year, flights were booked some time ago for the trip to Braunschweig and Paderborn. The evening before I left, I was on the way home from a performance of La Boheme at the Royal Opera House when I was greeted with the news that Friday’s game had been cancelled. So, after very little sleep, I was not best pleased to be on an early flight to Germany with little idea of what to do with the next two days. Still, I was sure that I could keep myself amused.
When I changed trains at Hannover, I saw some familiar faces on the platform. Ian is one of the regular away travellers that I often meet on trains to games, but it was still a little incongruous to encounter him and his brother at a station in Germany. I must say that, having travelled out on my own, I was rather pleased to have companions for the remainder of the journey. During the trip to Braunschweig it was decided that, since Rayo Vallecano were to take Watford’s place in that evening’s game, we would take in the match at the Eintracht Stadion anyway.
On arrival at the ground, the first thing that I noticed was the huge number of bicycles that were chained up outside. You would never see that at an English ground. The next thing of note was the beer stand where I met my travelling companions and quenched my thirst after the long walk in the heat.
When we entered the stadium, we found that the standing area that we had chosen was the home of the local Ultras. They were gathered at the front of the terrace, so we were in a good position to observe. As the teams emerged, we were a little surprised when scarves were raised and a rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” rang out. The home fans were great entertainment. The level of noise generated for a pre-season game was incredible, with quite a variety of songs ringing out. There was also rather a lot of liquid being thrown about. At first I thought they were throwing beer around, then it became apparent that there was a barrel of water at the front that was being liberally distributed into the crowd to cool them down on a warm evening. With the score at one apiece going in to the final few minutes, there was a conga through the stand. I’m not sure that any of the participants were aware that they conceded a late goal and lost the game. After the match, we headed on the tram back to town and had dinner and beers at a traditional German restaurant.
My plan for Saturday had been to do a bit of sightseeing. But, having been deprived of a chance to see Watford play, those travelling had been invited to send their contact details to the club and so I had received a call from Jon Marks informing me that we were invited to a training session at the team’s hotel. The slight drawback was that this was in the middle of nowhere in a small town some distance from Braunschweig. But we are seasoned travellers, so soon found details of the trains we needed to take and, after a late night out in Braunschweig, it was a slightly delicate bunch that met to catch the train to Gütersloh followed by a cab to Marienfeld. On arrival at the team’s hotel, we found the Sportsplätze and there was a group of people in yellow shirts watching the Watford team going through some fitness routines that appeared to include trying to wreck the fence around the field. The team had been split up into a number of different groups for these sessions and, as each group finished their routines, they emerged to sign autographs and have photographs taken with the supporters gathered there.
While watching the training, we saw some Hamburg players and found out that they were scheduled to play Bielefeld that afternoon. Since this was only one stop from Gütersloh on the train, we decided to take in the game. On arrival at Bielefeld railway station, we followed the crowds to the stadium. Again we opted to join the fans on the terraces. The home end was packed. As the team emerged, we were treated to a rendition of their club song, which had several verses. They had a number of songs including a very effective call and answer of Arminia … Bielefeld. To our surprise, a group that we thought were Hamburg fans in the opposite corner also participated in this chant (it was very difficult to distinguish between them as both sets of fans were wearing blue shirts). Athough, judging by the flag that was waving in that section, there seemed to be a good number of home fans in that section. The game resulted in a 2-0 win for the home side against a very poor Hamburg team.
Sunday morning, I woke up to a storm of biblical proportions. But, thankfully, the long train journey to Paderborn meant we left the rain behind. After freshening up in the hotel, we headed into town for a beer and then got a cab to take us to the ground. The last stage of the short journey took us up a narrow street that required a barricade to be moved for us to get through. We then emerged into a country road bordered with a cornfield which happened to have a football stadium at the end of it. There was a party atmosphere at the ground, with a bouncy castle goal and another bouncy full size fussball game, a carousel and the obligatory beer and würst. Something for everyone.
After good experiences on the previous two days, I was looking forward to the performance of the Paderborn fans, so was disappointed when their club song was played over the tannoy rather than being sung by the spectators. However, from a Watford perspective, it was just lovely to see our players warming up for the game.
The starting line-up was Arlauskis, Holebas, Prödl, Cathcart, Nyom, Behrami, Capoue, Watson, Abdi, Vydra and Deeney.
We’d had a conversation at a previous game about the drinking, smoking, water throwing and flares that are in evidence in German stadia and speculated on what would not be allowed. We found out when a steward appeared to tell some fans that they couldn’t have their flag hanging from a crush barrier. When they tried to protest, his gambit was “Look, they sent the fat bloke up to tell you, so do me a favour.” It worked.
The first notable action of the game was Behrami knocking one of the Paderborn players flying. It was a statement of intent. Watford took the lead in the 11th minute as Deeney played a lovely through ball for Vydra who hit his shot sweetly past Kruse in the Paderborn goal. The home side could have equalized soon afterwards as a cross reached Ouali in the box, but he blasted the ball way over the target. In the 23rd minute, Abdi exchanged passes with Nyom, but the return pass was poor allowing the home side to launch a counter attack which finished with Ndjeng shooting straight at Arlauskis. Behrami was then penalized for a tackle on Koc, who went down with a dramatic scream which was something of an over-reaction, but ensured that the Swiss international received a yellow card for the offence. Koc took the resulting free-kick himself and blasted it way over the bar. We had a great chance to increase the lead as, from an Abdi cross, Watson nodded the ball down to Deeney, whose shot appeared to be going in, but the keeper pulled off a good save to deny him. From the corner, Deeney’s header was straight at the keeper. The battle between Behrami and Koc continued, but on this occasion the Watford man was sinned against and won the free kick.
Paderborn had the ball in the net as a cross was headed home by Proschwitz, but he had been a mile offside. Abdi came in for a tackle, won the ball and was booked, very harshly I thought. In the 32nd minute the travelling Hornets started a minute’s applause and chants of “Only one Chris Dyer” for the Watford supporting victim of the terrorist attack in Tunisia. Deeney challenged the keeper for a long ball, leaving the stopper on the floor, but his shot from a narrow angle went wide. A Paderborn corner, for which the ball wasn’t even in the vicinity of the corner arc, was met with a header that was caught by Arlauskis, who stepped behind the goal line, but kept the ball out. Paderborn challenged again with a free kick from Ndjeng that flew wide of the far post. Deeney exchanged passes with Vydra but his shot took a deflection and went wide. Vydra then hit a cross-cum-shot that a defender, under no pressure at all, put out for a corner. The corner was met by a header from Deeney, but he was adjudged to have fouled the keeper so the referee blew up. At the other end, Ndjeng broke into the box, but Prödl was on hand to challenge as he tried to shoot, so the ball was easily gathered by Arlauskis.
So the Hornets went into half time with the lead. When we went looking for beers, we found that the stall was in the home section, which was rather interesting. Some who had bought seats also took this opportunity to swap to the terrace.
Flores made no changes to the Hornets’ line up at half time. The home side made a decent start with an early shot that was straight at the Watford keeper. Then a cross-cum shot from Koc was saved by the feet of Arlauskis. Capoue lost out to Ndjeng, who went down on the edge of the box, a bit of a soft free kick to give away. Saglik hit the set piece low and Arlauskis dropped to save. Watford’s first substitutions came 10 minutes into the second half as Ighalo, Anya and Pudil came on for Vydra, Behrami and Holebas. The Swiss left the field to boos from the home fans. On the hour Saglik chested the ball down and shot wide. We were two goals up soon after as Anya ran down the left and crossed for Deeney, who appeared to mishit the shot but the ball reached Ighalo who found the net for his 6th goal of this pre-season. Watford should have had a penalty soon after as a cross from Anya appeared to be handled by Hünemeier, but the referee gave nothing. Deeney was the next to be substituted, being replaced by Fabbrini. Then Stoppelkamp went on a run into the box and took a tumble, thankfully no Watford player was anywhere near him so we didn’t concede the penalty that he seemed to be playing for.
Ndjeng tried to beat Arlauskis with a curling shot, but the Lithuanian was behind the ball and gathered comfortably. That was his last action of the game as he was replaced by Gilmartin. The Irishman was called into action immediately, although his dive proved to be unnecessary, as Proschwitz’s shot was just wide of the target. That was the striker’s last contribution as he was substituted immediately. At the same time, Dyer came on to replace Abdi. Gilmartin was tested with a cross-cum-shot that he parried before gathering. Then Stoppelkamp shot across goal and wide. Eyes were then drawn to the Watford bench where Deeney could be seen getting up and limping to the dressing room. Hopefully, he was just a bit stiff rather than something more concerning. Watford’s final substitution saw Murray replacing Watson for the last couple of minutes, but there was no further score so Watford ran out comfortable 2-0 winners after a decent performance.
After the final whistle some of the fans around me starting muttering about a ‘disgrace’ and there were a few boos. I was a bit baffled until it became apparent that they were angry that some of the Watford players had not come over to applaud them at the end. As a result they cheered the Paderborn players off. It seemed an overly sensitive reaction, but applause from the players is expected by English (and German) fans in a way that it isn’t in some other European countries.
We took the shuttle bus back into town and, while searching for somewhere to have dinner, met some Paderborn fans who had enjoyed the game and were very happy to direct us to a traditional restaurant, which turned out to be an excellent recommendation.
There is always a risk in attending pre-season friendlies. Early matches are, effectively, training games to build up fitness, so nothing can be read into them. I quite like the relaxation of watching games in which the score doesn’t matter so you can just watch the players perform. The most appealing part of these tours, though, is the opportunity to experience a game in an unfamiliar city with the opportunities that gives for exploration. I love Germany, the landscape, the food and the people so, despite the difficulties on this tour, it turned out to be a cracking long weekend away.
I will miss the rest of our pre-season campaign as I gather my strength for a trip to Everton. Hope springs eternal at this stage. We can only hope that this season heralds our best showing in the top division since the 80s.