Saturday was to be an important day for Watford fans with the long awaited unveiling of the GT statue. I was in Watford soon after 10am and headed straight for the ground, hoping for a sneak preview, but there were barriers up around the statue, so I went to a café in the precinct for breakfast. I was supposed to be meeting Don and Trond, but they were held up due to having go to the ticket office to get Don’s tickets, which had not arrived. They arrived after I finished my meal and, as I watched a stream of people walking past the café on their way to the ground, I started to get nervous and decided to leave them to it and make sure that I secured a decent spot to watch the ceremony, knowing that Don would have a reserved place in the disabled area. When I arrived, at 11-ish, I saw many familiar faces and took my spot opposite the midpoint between the lectern and the statue and hoped that this would prove to be a good vantage point. As the crowds gathered, the main comment that I heard was that it wasn’t very tall. I was just hoping that this meant that he would be sitting on a bench, where you could join him, which has been my desire ever since the statue was commissioned.
As the clock ticked down to 12:30, a yellow, red and black rope was placed in front of the statue, which would represent the ceremonial unveiling. The Taylor family then arrived accompanied by friends that included Tom Walley, Luther Blissett, John Ward, Eddie Plumley, Miles Jacobson, Lionel Birnie and John Motson. The first speech of the afternoon was from Scott Duxbury who said that GT had been the first person to call when they bought the club, to let him know the values of the club and tell him how to run it. He paid tribute to him as not only the club’s greatest manager, but a great friend of the club. Luther then stepped up to speak on behalf of the players and staff at the club and was uncharacteristically tongue-tied. He really seemed to struggle on an occasion that was so important for him as he paid tribute to his mentor and friend. It was then the turn of the family and GT’s daughter, Joanne, stepped up with her mother and sister beside her. She started by reassuring those who knew her Dad that her speech would be short and sweet. She spoke of the lovely tributes they had received from fans, of the kind welcome they receive at the club and finished with a quote from her father’s autobiography that spoke about the importance of the supporters. Hers were really lovely words that made me both laugh and cry. When she had finished, it was time for the unveiling. The ceremonial rope was cut by Rita Taylor and the statue was revealed. It was GT sitting on a bench with a huge smile on his face. Just perfect.
The family and friends were then invited to sit with the statue and the first to join GT were his two daughters who sat and cuddled up to their Dad, which had me in tears again. They were then joined by their children and GT’s sister before they all moved aside and Rita took her place alongside her husband. As she always is, she was incredibly brave. I was very moved by it all, but was a little taken aback when I heard a voice alongside me telling me not to cry. It was GT’s daughter Karen, who had taken the time to come over and comfort a fan. It was such a lovely thing to do.
As the ceremony finished, we headed away from the ground and arrived in the West Herts in great need of a pint. There was much talk of the ceremony and the statue and of how the tone of the event had been perfect. Then thoughts turned to the game and Jacque retrieved a little soft toy from her bag that she assured us was a Sampdoria dolphin that she had obtained the last time that we played this opposition.
As has been the pattern for pre-season, we reached the ground to find a huge queue at the turnstiles. But, on this occasion, I was in my seat in time for the teams to emerge from the tunnel. The starting XI was Foster; Janmaat, Kabasele, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue, Pereyra, Sema; Deeney, Gray.
After a minute’s applause for GT, the game kicked off and the Hornets made a decent start with the first test for the Sampdoria keeper, Audero, coming after Deeney played a one-two with Gray before taking a shot. The visitors were forced to make an early change as Kownacki made way for Quagliarella, who was sporting number 99! Sampdoria took an early lead from a corner which was headed back over the defence to Colley who had an easy finish past Foster as he dropped to block. It was rather a soft goal reminiscent of the early strike at Brentford. The next action of note was in the stands as some people who were sitting in the blazing sun at the front of the SEJ stand asked if they could swap to the Rookery. The steward who allowed them through must have regretted his actions almost immediately as half the stand decided to follow suit. I suspect that Adalberto Peñaranda was also rather miffed as he (along with Britos) had taken a seat in the empty stand only to find himself surrounded by people desperate to know the status of his work permit application. As more and more people arrived, he moved further back in the stand ending up in the back row.
Back on the pitch, Watford had a decent chance of an equaliser as a cross from Janmaat was met with a glancing header from Pereyra that was cleared. A decent cross from Holebas was put out for a corner that came to nothing. At the other end, Jankto tried a shot that was wide of the target. Another decent cross from Holebas was met by the head of Gray, but the ball few over the bar. Gray had a great chance for an equaliser just before half time as he ran onto a long pass from Capoue, but he could only shoot into the side netting. Sema then put a low ball across the goal but there was no Watford player on hand to apply the finishing touch. The final chance of the half came as a ball into the box was cleared to Deeney, but he could only chip the ball to the keeper. So we reached half time with the Hornets a goal down after a fairly even half with very few chances.
The first chance of the second half fell to the Hornets as Sema went on a run down the left before cutting the ball back to Deeney whose shot was blocked by Colley. Then, after some good interplay, Pereyra played a lovely ball to Gray in space, but he took one touch too many allowing the defender time to get back to block the shot. Capoue then played a lovely ball to Holebas on the left who took a couple of touches before firing high and wide.
The Hornets equalized in the 53rd minute as a cross from Holebas was headed down by Gray to Deeney who buried his shot past Audero. It was no more than the Hornets deserved. There was a decent chance for the home side to take the lead as Deeney played a lovely through ball to release Gray but, again, he thought too long and Audero was out to save at his feet. Sampdoria made a rash of substitutions during the afternoon, but Gracia’s only change came with 20 minutes to go when Hughes made way for Charles. The Hornets had one final chance to win the game as a Holebas free-kick reached Gray, but he turned it just wide and the game ended with honours even.
As the game had ended in a draw, Rita Taylor made the presentation of the GT Memorial Cup to both captains.
Then we headed back to the West Herts for the post-match analysis. While you can’t read too much into pre-season games, the choice of goalkeeper and playing two up front has got to be indicative of Gracia’s likely team for the first game of the season. Deeney and Gray work well together, but I would like to see Gray be more instinctive in taking his shots as you don’t get much time and he seems to think himself out of chances. But, all in all, the second half had been very enjoyable with some lovely football on show, which bodes well for the new season.
But the memories of the day will all revolve around the unveiling of the statue. The ceremony was just wonderful and I loved the way that Joanne had a very emotional crowd laughing with happy memories of her father. GT was a very special man and it makes me very happy that we now have somewhere to sit and remember him and all the happy times that he gave us. Thank you, GT.