Tag Archives: Demarai Gray

40 Years On

Gerard Deulofeu

I am normally pretty irritated when our games are moved to stupid times for television, and it has to be said that there is no more stupid time for football than midday on a Sunday.  However, on this occasion, I was actually quite pleased as it meant that I would attend a game on the 40th anniversary of my first matchday at Vicarage Road.  On that occasion, Chesterfield were the visitors for a third division game.  My friends and I went to the Wimpy for lunch before the game (a great treat in those days), we won the game 2-0 with goals from Ian Bolton and Ross Jenkins and I was officially hooked.

Work commitments in the US meant that I was unable to go to Liverpool for the midweek game.  I must say that, as I followed the game from afar and the goals started going in, my regret at not being at Anfield dissipated a little.  This is only the second league game that I have missed this season, in those games we have failed to score while conceding nine goals.  I will do everything within my power to ensure that I am ever present from now until May.

Etienne Capoue

Given the early start, I decided to forego a pre-match beer and head straight for the ground.  All the more time to spend with the family, a particular pleasure on this occasion as my niece, Maddie, was making a rare visit to Vicarage Road.  I had given her my season ticket seat and intended to sit in the vacant seat of a friend who couldn’t make it, but one of our neighbours kindly moved and we were able to all sit together.

Leicester’s decision to dispense with the services of Claude Puel and appoint Brendan Rodgers meant that this was the third home game in a row in which we would face a former manager.  It also ensured a better atmosphere than may have been expected on a Sunday lunchtime as Mr Integrity returned to Vicarage Road.

Team news was that Gracia had made just the one change with the return of Holebas from suspension meaning that he took the place of Masina.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart, Mariappa, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu and Deeney.  After the away team was announced, Tim Coombs asked the Watford fans to give a big welcome to our former manager, which had the predicted response of a loud chorus of boos.

Deeney looks pretty happy to have opened the scoring

The Hornets started brilliantly and should have taken the lead in the second minute when Mariappa met a Holebas free kick with a shot from close range that Schmeichel did brilliantly to stop, the follow-up from Deulofeu was deflected wide.  But the Hornets were not to be denied for long and in the fifth minute Deeney rose to meet a free kick from Deulofeu and head past Schmeichel.  That certainly settled the early nerves.  Our first indication that we would have a typically torrid time with Jon Moss came in the 13th minute when the referee deemed a challenge from Mariappa on Vardy as deserving of a yellow card.  Vardy then found himself in the wars again as he and Foster came for a free kick and collided heavily.  They were both down for a while with Foster taking the longer to recover.  When Ben finally sat up he looked into the television camera that was directly in front of him and stuck out his tongue.  I breathed a sigh of relief at that point.  Leicester then had a dominant spell but the only chance of note came as Ricardo played a ball across the penalty area for Chilwell to cut back for Barnes who shot high and wide of the target.  Watford had a good chance to score a second goal, as Capoue released Deeney who put in a decent cross for Doucouré, but the Leicester defenders stopped the shot.  The Hornets fashioned another chance as Pereyra found Deulofeu who went on a run into the box but could only shoot straight at Schmeichel.  At the other end Ricardo put in a low cross that looked dangerous until Mariappa met it with a powerful clearance that went out for a throw.  Watford had the last chance of the half as a long pass released Pereyra who crossed for Deeney, but there were two Leicester defenders in attendance who stopped him getting a shot in.

Holebas takes a free kick

So the half time whistle went after a really decent half of football that was quite unexpected as Sunday lunchtime television games are not exactly known for their entertainment value.  The game had gone in waves of possession, but Foster had yet to make a save.

The players had warmed up for the game wearing shirts showing the Man of Men which is the symbol for the Prostate Cancer UK charity.  Mike Parkin of the From the Rookery End podcast was on the pitch at half time talking about the charity.  Last year he did the March for Men, which I did a couple of years ago, in order to raise funds for research into prostate cancer, a disease that has affected his father as it has friends and family of mine so it is a cause very close to my heart and I was delighted to see the efforts at this game to raise awareness of a horrible disease that affects so many men.

 

Deeney waiting for the ball to drop

The visitors had the first chance of the second half with a shot from distance that was straight at Foster.  The first chance of the half for the Hornets should have led to them increasing their lead as Pereyra played the ball out to Doucouré on the edge of the box, he hit a gorgeous shot that needed a brilliant one-handed save from Schmeichel to keep it out.  Jon Moss was increasingly attracting the ire of the Watford fans as he blew up for a series of innocuous looking fouls (by the Hornets) while waving play on for infringements from Leicester that looked far more obvious.  The annoyance was compounded when he booked Capoue for a nothing foul.  At this point, the Leicester fans decided to serenade Troy with a chorus of “Troy Deeney, what a w*nk*r.”  Troy just laughed and applauded them.  There was another clash of striker and goalkeeper, this time a ball was played over the top to Deeney, Schmeichel came out to clear and they collided.  Troy was booked which seemed harsh as he had every right to go for that ball.  Both teams made their first substitution within minutes of each other and, in each case, a player called Gray took the field, in the place of Barnes for the visitors and Deulofeu for the Hornets.  Gerry looked very unhappy at the decision.  Leicester came close with a speculative shot from Ndidi that rebounded off the crossbar.

Doucoure, Hughes and Cathcart gathering for a free kick

Watford fans were shouting for a free kick as Deeney was fouled, at least I believe a big defender leaning on your back is a foul, Jon Moss clearly does not, so waved play on allowing Tielemans to release Vardy who broke forward and chipped Foster to get the equalizer.  At this point the nerves really set in and I was sure that Leicester would get a winner.  Rodgers made a double change with Tielemans and Vardy making way for Mendy and Iheanacho.  The visitors having drawn level, Moss relented and finally awarded a free kick to the Hornets and booked Pereira for a foul on Deeney, decisions that earned the referee an ironic standing ovation from the Watford fans.  The visitors threatened to get a winner with a dangerous looking cross from Chilwell, but Foster was down to make a comfortable save.  They had another decent chance as Morgan met a cross from Maddison but the header was wide of the target.  Gracia made a final change bringing Cleverley on for Hughes just as the fourth official held up the board indicating that there were four minutes of added time.  Following the equaliser, Leicester had looked the more likely winners, but it was the Hornets who snatched a late goal as Deeney played a lovely ball through to Gray and, with the Rookery screaming encouragement, he shrugged off the attentions of the defender and finished past Schmeichel to send the home fans into a wild celebration.  Our little group were bouncing up and down in a lovely family group hug.  Gray was booked for taking his shirt off.  It was worth it.  My heart was pounding for the remainder of the added time, but the final whistle went and the celebrations started again.

As the referee left the field, he was roundly booed by the home fans.  It was no more than he deserved, but it annoyed me as we should have been cheering our lads after that win.

A family of Watford fans

Back to the West Herts for a post-match pint.  I had been warned that, prior to the game, “our” table had been taken over by a group of Scandinavians.  It turns out that this was a large group of Norwegians who were old friends of Don, who had met them on a pre-season tour of Norway in the early 80s, which was when he had first met his good friend, Trond (now a Watford resident and season ticket holder).  One of the visitors had been to our match at Kaiserslautern, so these were not tourists jumping on the Premier League bandwagon at Watford.

Consensus after the game was that we would have lost that one last year … and the year before … and probably the year before that.  Leicester had more possession during the game, but the Watford defence had been steadfast, restricting their shooting opportunities such that, the goal apart, Foster wasn’t tested.  The Hornets played some lovely football and it was Schmeichel who had made the more impressive saves.  Deeney put in a superb Captain’s performance that was capped with his goal and assist.  What has been particularly pleasing this season is that the second half slump has not materialized.  We continue to be challenging opposition for (almost) all of our opponents.  We now have 43 points and look likely to surpass all of our previous premier league totals making this a season to remember and cherish.

The forty years that I have been watching the Hornets have provided me with some incredible experiences.  Our small town club has punched above its weight for most of that time and given us a team to be proud of.  I have met many lovely people, made great friends and have so many happy memories.  But one of the loveliest things is to see the next generation of fans coming to games.  So many of my friends and those who sit around me in the Rookery are now bringing children and grandchildren to games and sharing the joy with them.  Our family group is one of those and the highlight of this game for me was seeing our Maddie celebrating the goals.  She may not go very often, but she is definitely a Watford fan.  It proves the adage that you can take the girl out of Watford, but you can’t take Watford out of the girl.

Pride in the Solidarity Off the Field

The tribute banner makes its way around the stand

It is a nice short journey from London to Leicester and the rail connections are excellent, but I was still surprised to arrive at St Pancras and see that there were two trains leaving within 3 minutes of each other, so took another look at my ticket to ensure I was on the one I had booked.  I took my allocated seat and found myself opposite a young Watford fan who was wearing rainbow laces in support of the Stonewall campaign to stop homophobia in the game.  I admired his choice while feeling somewhat ashamed that my boots were zipped, so I was not able to join in.

Arriving in the designated pub before midday, it was already very busy and there were a number of the Watford regular away travellers in situ.  The pub has a great selection of real ale and there was a chocolate orange stout on offer that seemed to be a particular favourite with that group, but I went for the safer option of the local bitter.  Our party soon gathered and one or two did sample the stout, but there were eyebrows raised at my sister’s tipple.  Raspberry gin just doesn’t seem right pre match.

Team news was that Gracia had made two changes bringing Holebas and Success in for Masina and Deeney.  So the starting line-up was Foster; Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes, Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra; Deulofeu and Success.

Doucoure and Capoue

Prior to the teams taking the field, the 1881 unveiled two banners that they had crowdfunded to pay tribute to Khun Vichai and the other victims of the tragic helicopter crash.  When the large one was unfurled, I found myself under it, but I could see the Leicester fans in the stand to the left of us and they were all on their feet applauding.  After a short time the banner was surfed across the stand and it was lovely to see it move from the away to the home stand and to be moved around as it would have been in the Rookery.  The appreciation of the home fans was reflected by the Leicester announcer who started his reading of the team sheets with “To the Watford fans, thank-you.”

Watford had the first chance of the game as Deulofeu and Pereyra combined to advance before finding Doucouré whose shot was deflected for a corner that came to nothing.  But disaster struck for the Hornets on 11 minutes as Vardy ran on to a through ball in to the box, Foster came out to challenge, Vardy went down and the referee pointed to the spot.  The challenge was right in front of us and looked like a definite penalty, although the Leicester man did go down rather easily.  Vardy doesn’t miss those chances and powered past Foster to give the home side an early lead.

Holebas takes a corner

The visitors tried to strike back immediately as some great work led to a corner, the delivery from Holebas was met by the head of Success, but Schmeichel got a hand to it and it went out for another corner.  Watford were two goals down soon after as a mistake in the midfield gifted the ball to the opposition, Albrighton played a long pass to Maddison, who shook off the attentions of the Watford defenders with a bit of ball juggling before volleying past Foster.  The Foxes had a chance to increase their lead further, but Pereira shot over the target.  They threatened again as the ball was played through the legs of Doucouré to Demarai Gray whose shot was deflected for a corner.  This was taken short and turned into a chance for the Hornets when an attempted forward pass hit Deulofeu who broke at speed, and found Success, who should have done better, but shot over the target.  At this point, word spread through the away end that Vichai’s son, Khun Top, would pay for all the food and drink consumed by the away fans at half time.  A lovely gesture.  But there was still action on the pitch and in the last minute of the half Watford won a free kick.  It took an age to take as the referee insisted that it was taken from a certain spot, inches from where it had originally been placed, and Deulofeu’s delivery disappointingly cleared the bar.

So we reached half time two goals down due to Leicester making the most of the few chances that they had.  A decent contingent of the away support made their way to the concourse to drown their sorrows and, as promised, the beer (and tea and coffee) flowed and the tills were closed.

Gathering for a corner

Watford had the first chance of the second half as the ball was crossed to Success in the box, but he had no space and just side footed it into an area occupied by Leicester players.  Then Deulofeu found Success in space in the box and, with an open goal in front of him, he passed the ball to Schmeichel.  Deulofeu broke again, this time finding Pereyra whose shot was agonizingly just wide of the far post.  Gracia made a double substitution at this point with Deulofeu, who had created a great deal, and Pereyra, who had another quiet game, making way for Gray and Deeney.  It was an attacking substitution, but the home side had the next chance and I was mightily relieved to see Demarai Gray’s shot rebound off the post.  The first caution of the game went to Albrighton for handball.  The Hornets should have pulled a goal back when Holebas crossed for Andre Gray, who had a free header but managed to direct it wide of the target.  The Watford man had another chance soon after as Success played the ball back to him, but he wasn’t expecting it and hit a shot that looked more like a cross and drifted wide.  The home side made a couple of substitutions with first Söyüncü replacing Gray and then Iheanacho coming on for Vardy.  Watford had another promising chance as Femenía crossed for Success, he played it back to Gray who horribly miskicked the ball and the danger was gone.  Gracia made his last change bringing Chalobah on for Hughes.  Watford had another chance to get on the scoresheet from a corner as the ball was headed out to Doucouré, but his shot flew over the bar.  Then there was more frustration for the travelling Hornets as a cross from Femenía was blocked, the ball fell to Chalobah but his shot was also blocked.  The first card for the visitors was shown to Success for a high boot, although he didn’t seem to make much contact, so it appeared rather harsh. Puel made his final substitution bringing Iborra on for Evans.  In time added on, the Hornets were reduced to ten men as Capoue was dismissed for a coming together with Iheanacho.  I didn’t see the contact at the time, but the television pictures indicated that it was a very harsh decision.  The last chance of the game fell to the home side as Maddison tried a shot from distance, but Foster was equal to it.

Holebas takes a throw-in

As the players came over to thank the fans they faced the additional challenge of a phalanx of mowers that had been employed to trim the pitch.  Leicester stewards have a reputation for being inflexible and aggressive but this level of weaponry was a new one on me.

After another defeat for the Hornets, the overwhelming feeling among the away following was frustration.  It had not been a bad performance, but our defence had been unable to cope with the Leicester counter attacks, while our domination of the possession and goal attempts did not lead to one on target shot.  For all the complaints about tactics and personnel, all the ‘strikers’ had their chances and not one of them tested the Leicester keeper.  It is hard to know how to remedy that.  We face Manchester City on Tuesday and, given their form, I am sorely tempted to go to the Herts Senior Cup game in Leverstock Green instead (I won’t).

But, despite the disappointment on the pitch, what we will remember from this game is the kindness of the 1881 in commissioning a banner to pay tribute to Leicester’s chairman and the reaction that this provoked from both his family and the fans.  It was an emotional moment as the banner was unfurled in the away end, but when I saw Top’s reaction on Match of the Day, it was clear how much it meant to him.  There are bitter rivalries on the pitch, but we are all football fans and that camaraderie between fans of different teams in times of trouble is what makes being a football fan special.  Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was not a Leicester native, but he made a tremendous difference to the lives of the people of that city and will be fondly remembered for what he did for both the football team and the city.  May he rest in peace.

Silva’s Last Stand

Karnezis making his full debut

When I checked the time of the train I had booked for Saturday, I realised that I was arriving in Leicester ridiculously early and feared that the designated pub may not be open.  Thankfully, given what a miserable day it was, the doors were open and I managed to get a booth.  When the next train arrived from London,

the pub suddenly filled up, so my early arrival didn’t look so foolish after all.  However my long wait meant that I became irrationally concerned when my friends didn’t arrive.  I only relaxed when the last of our depleted party was at our table.

On arrival at the ground, the search teams were operating a queuing system, using metal detectors (yes that is a phone and some coins in my pocket) and a sniffer dog.  Thankfully we had left ourselves plenty of time to get to the ground so did not miss kick-off on this occasion.

As there had been no discussion of the team prior to arrival at the ground, it was only when the ball was played back to the Watford keeper early in the game that I realised that Karnezis was in goal for the Hornets.  After his performance at Everton, this was a cause of some concern.  Silva’s other changes were Pereyra and Deeney in for the injured Cleverley and Gray.  So the starting line-up was Karnezis; Janmaat, Wagué, Kabasele, Zeegelaar; Doucouré, Watson; Carrillo, Pereyra, Richarlison; Deeney.

Richarlison on the ball

In line with other Premier League clubs, there was a minute’s applause for the wonderful Cyrille Regis, who passed away earlier this week.  Those of us of a certain age were deeply saddened at his early death.  He was a wonderful player to watch and one who was a trailblazer for the young players of colour that have followed him.  It is just heartbreaking that many of them are still suffering abuse related to their colour.  But, thankfully, racist abuse is not something that is evident at every game as it was in the 70s and 80s.

Watford started brightly enough with a couple of corners in the first minutes of the game, from the second Carrillo shot over the bar.  Leicester looked to hit the visitors on the counter attack as Vardy broke forward but his shot was saved by Karnezis, who I was pleased to see was looking assured in the Watford goal.  The Watford keeper was called into action again soon after as a free kick was nodded back to Ndidi, but the shot was blocked.  At the other end, there was a good spell for Watford as a Richarlison shot was blocked, a follow-up header from Pereyra was cleared off the line, the ball rebounded to Doucouré on the edge of the area, but his shot was easily gathered by Schmeichel.  Watford threatened again as Pereyra took a short free kick to Watson, whose shot was blocked, Pereyra hit the follow-up which flew high and wide.

Janmaat takes a throw-in

Deeney was the next to try his luck with a low shot from distance, but Schmeichel was down to save.  The lino in front of the away fans incurred their wrath when Vardy appeared to be in an offside position when he received a ball from Mahrez and was allowed to continue, when he then lost out to Kabasele, the defender was adjudged to have committed a foul.  Justice was done when Mahrez curled a dreadful free kick straight to Karnezis.  Watford appeared to have opened the scoring on 34 minutes when Carrillo headed the ball on to Deeney who volleyed home, but the flag was up for offside.  As happens so often these days, the opposition then took the lead.  From our vantage point, Wagué took the ball off Vardy in the box fairly, but the Leicester player went down and the referee pointed to the spot.  Vardy stepped up and buried the penalty.  The comment in my notebook at this point is not fit for a family blog.

So the Hornets went in at half-time a goal down, which was harsh as it had been a very even half.

Pereyra and Watson prepare for a free kick

Watford had a chance to strike back in the first minute of the second half as Carrillo crossed for Deeney, but the shot was blocked.  At the other end Vardy was allowed to nip in behind the defender, he crossed for Okazaki whose shot was straight at Karnezis.  Silva made his first substitution bringing Gray on for Pereyra.  He was immediately forced into his second as Wagué had pulled up with what appeared to be a hamstring strain and was replaced by Prödl.  Watford continued to push for the equalizer as Richarlison found Deeney but the captain’s shot flew just wide.  Leicester made their first change, which also involved a player called Gray who replaced Okazaki.  There was a lovely move as Deeney combined with (our) Gray, but the shot was saved by Schmeichel.  Leicester were shouting for another penalty when Mahrez went down in the box, but the appeals were waved away.  A decent chance for the visitors went begging after Richarlison released Doucouré whose cross seemed to get stuck under Gray’s feet so he was unable to take a shot.  The Watford man should have grabbed the equalizer soon after when he received a lovely ball from Deeney, he was one on one with Schmeichel but hesitated long enough for Maguire to get into position to block his shot.  So frustrating.  The Watford pressure continued as Richarlison broke into the box, his shot appeared to be blocked for a corner, but a goal kick was given.  Then a corner from Watson was headed just over by Deeney.  Silva’s final change was to bring Okaka on for Janmaat.  So, after starting with one up front, Watford now had all three strikers on the pitch at the same time.  Ironically, it was at this point that the visitors stopped creating chances.  Instead Leicester had a great chance to increase their lead as Mahrez played the ball back to Ndidi whose shot required a decent save from Karnezis to keep it out.  But the home side scored their second in time added on as Okaka dwelled on the ball too long before being dispossessed, Mahrez broke and shot across Karnezis into the far corner.

Zeegelaar strikes the ball

The scoreline definitely flattered the home side, as it had been a pretty even game.  Many around me spoke of a better performance by the Hornets, but I thought they were being rather charitable.  It certainly wasn’t as poor as the first half against Southampton, but Leicester did not play particularly well and still beat us fairly easily.  You could argue that it would have been a different game if Deeney’s goal had stood or Gray had scored the sitter, but Leicester had used their pace to their advantage and Watford had no reply.

It was a disgruntled group who reconvened for post-match drinks.  We harked back to how impressed we had been at the start of the season when the football had been entertaining, the work rate impressive, the players played for each other and we truly believed that we could beat any other team (apart from Man City).  That magnificent team had been replaced by a shambles that often looked as though they had only met on the bus to the ground that lunchtime.  The downturn had started when Everton made the approach for Silva.  I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for some time, particularly in view of the injuries, but the team which was comfortably mid-table when the first approach was made had finished the day in 10th place but only 5 points off the relegation zone.  With no prospect of any improvement, I think all of us had lost patience with Marco Silva.

On Sunday morning it became apparent that Gino Pozzo had also had enough and by the end of the day Silva had been replaced by Javi Gracia.  As with the majority of the Pozzo appointments, I know nothing about the new man.  I just hope that he can get the team back to their early season form.  We have games against Southampton (in the cup) and Stoke coming up and need to see considerable improvement from these players if we are not to be dragged into a relegation battle that I would have no confidence that we could win.

Success in the Boxing Day Fox Hunt

Wague making his first start

After a lovely Christmas day with the family, it was off to Vicarage Road to see if we could arrest the recent slump.   The Boxing Day game is one of the first that I look for when the fixtures come out.  I always look forward to them, even if they rarely give us anything to cheer (I am still smarting from the injury time goal by Kirk Stephens in 1979).  I had anticipated traffic and trouble parking but, once I had negotiated the classic car rally in Sarratt, it was plain sailing and I was surprised to be waved into the car park at the West Herts and find it almost empty.  Happily, our table was pleasantly populated although, as he likes to make sure he doesn’t miss anything, Don had already made his way to the ground.

Team news was that Wagué was to make his first start for the Hornets in place of Prödl.  Holebas and Gray also made way for Zeegelaar and Doucouré on their return from suspension.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Janmaat, Wagué, Kabasele, Zeegelaar; Doucouré, Watson; Carrillo, Cleverley, Pereyra; Richarlison.  The team selection was described as ‘random’ by one of our party.  It was noticeable that there was no striker in the starting XI but, given the lack of end product from the current incumbents, that was an option that had been discussed after the game on Saturday.  As we walked along Vicarage Road to the ground, Glenn predicted a 3-1 win.  He was feeling a lot more positive than I was.

Heurelho Gomes

Following the coin toss, the teams swapped ends, an event that is seen by many as a bad omen.  But my brother-in-law pointed out that having a female lino usually leads to good fortune, so the omens cancelled each other out.

The first fifteen minutes of the game was notable for the three yellow cards that were shown.  The first to Leicester’s Maguire, before Watson and Kabasele followed him into the referee’s book.  The first goal chance went to the visitors after a slack defensive header by Janmaat was intercepted, Chilwell’s cross was headed goalwards by Okazaki, but Gomes pulled off a flying save, tipping it over the bar.  A lovely move by the Hornets saw Carrillo beat a player to get into the box and pull the ball back to Pereyra who tried a back-heel towards the goal which was blocked.  Carrillo gave the ball away in midfield allowing Albrighton to release Vardy, who broke forward but, with only Gomes to beat, managed to find the side netting at the near post, much to the relief of the home fans.  Watford had a decent chance from a free kick which dropped to Doucouré, but his shot was blocked.  The next caution was earned by Dragović, who pulled Pereyra to the ground to stop him escaping.

Celebrating Wague’s goal

The visitors threatened with a shot from Mahrez which probably looked more dangerous than it was as it flew through a crowd of players who may have unsighted Gomes, so I was relieved to see it nestle in the keeper’s arms.  Leicester took the lead in the 37th minute as Albrighton crossed for Mahrez to head past Gomes.  It was a sickener as it followed a decent spell of play by the Hornets.  After recent set-backs, you could only see one result following, but the Hornets reacted well and should have equalised almost immediately as Carrillo played a lovely through-ball to Richarlison. With only Schmeichel to beat, an instinctive shot would probably have done the job, but the young Brazilian overthought it, delayed the shot and found the side-netting.  There was some light relief as a coming together between Pereyra and Ndidi resulted in the Leicester man tumbling over the hoardings.  I know that it could have ended in injury, but it always make me laugh and, thankfully, he returned to the field with no harm done.  That proved to be the Argentine’s last involvement in the game as he was withdrawn due to a knock and replaced by Okaka.  A change that was greeted with approval by the home fans.  The Hornets equalised as the clock reached 45 minutes when a corner from Cleverley was met with an overhead kick from Richarlison that was blocked, but it fell to Wagué who finished past Schmeichel.  The home side could have taken the lead in time added on at the end of the half as a lovely move finished with Cleverley finding Richarlison on the left of the box, his shot was powerful and cannoned off the post, but it sent the Vicarage Road faithful into the break with smiles on their faces.

Richarlison and Wague challenging at a corner

The guest for the half-time draw was Nigel Gibbs, who commented that he had been home for Christmas earlier than expected after the managerial change at Swansea.  It is always lovely to see Gibbsy back at Vicarage Road and, as he approached the Rookery on his way back into the stand, he was given a tremendous reception, which he clearly appreciated.

Early in the second half, a lovely ball over the top from Watson reached Richarlison who looked as though he’d escape, but his first touch was too heavy and the chance was gone.  The first goal attempt of the second half fell to the home side as Carrillo found Doucouré on the edge of the box, he had time to swap feet and pick his spot, but his shot sailed well over the bar.  Leicester had a great chance to regain the lead as a dangerous cross looked as though it would drop nicely for Vardy, but Gomes was first to the ball.  At the other end Richarlison found Okaka, who tried an overhead kick which flew wide of the post.  A dangerous counter attack by the visitors was foiled as Watson did well to get back and cut out Albrighton’s cross before it reached Vardy.

Congratulating Doucoure after the winner

The Hornets took the lead on 65 minutes following a Cleverley free-kick.  From our vantage point at the opposite end of the ground, Doucouré’s shot appeared to have been cleared off the line.  There was a pause as the Watford players claimed the goal, the referee looked at his ‘watch’ and, as I held my breath, pointed to the centre circle, sending the Rookery into wild celebrations.  Leicester made two substitutions replacing Okazaki and Dragović with Slimani and Gray.  It appeared that Glenn’s score prediction would be spot on as Cleverley robbed Chilwell and advanced on goal, but his shot was just wide of the far post.  Puel’s last change saw Ulloa coming on for King.  The visitors had a great chance to draw level from a corner as the ball dropped to Morgan, but Gomes did brilliantly to block the shot.  The keeper was called into action again from the resultant corner, dropping to save Ulloa’s header, and the danger was averted.  Silva made a couple of late substitutions, bringing Prödl on for Watson, followed by Carrillo, who had another great game, making way for Sinclair.  I must admit that it was a relief to see only three minutes of added time.  There was time for a lovely passing move up the wing which finished with a cross to Okaka, who won a corner and used up some of the remaining seconds.  The last action of the game was a cross from Albrighton that was gathered by Gomes under a challenge from Maguire that he did not appreciate, he was raging at both the player and the referee.  But he was to end the game with a smile on his face as Watford grabbed a win that was probably deserved based on the quality of the play, if not the tally of shots on target.

This game wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a pleasing return to some kind of form.  Following a couple of lack lustre performances, the work rate that had been such a pleasing aspect of the play in the early part of the season was back, with players pressuring their opponents, giving them no space to play and causing them to make mistakes.  Wagué played well on his full debut, topping it off with a goal.  What had appeared to be a bit of a makeshift team had given us the best ninety minutes for some time and provided a rather lovely finish to this Christmas.  We just need to continue in the same vein against Swansea.

Undone by Defensive Errors

Pre-match huddle

I should have known that this was not going to be our day when, even before we’d left London, there was a message to say that the designated pre-match pub was closed.  Pete, who used to live in Leicester, was given the responsibility of nominating an alternative.  When we arrived, the outside was rather unprepossessing, but the interior was surprisingly gorgeous.  Having spotted our party towards the back of the pub, I made my way past the large group of blokes in my path.  I had assumed that they were all locals, but when I looked up, I realised that I knew most of them.  The beer choice was interesting, I went for a glass of mild, probably for the first time in my life.  I certainly wasn’t going to try the Vardy Volley!

Team news was that Mazzarri had decided to drop Deeney, with Okaka taking his place.  Needless to say, this led to speculation about Troy’s future at Watford with most thinking that, should Mazzarri stay on as manager (which looks likely), Deeney will be on his way.  The other change for the Hornets was Kabasele for Britos.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Mariappa, Prödl, Kabasele; Amrabat, Doucouré, Cleverley, Capoue, Janmaat; Niang and Okaka.

Gomes launches a ball upfield

The first chance of the game fell to the Hornets as Niang released Janmaat whose curling shot was well wide of the target.  The Hornets nearly benefitted from a mistake by Schmeichel who threw the ball to Amrabat, it reached Cleverley in a great shooting position, but his shot was wide of the target.  Leicester then had two chances both of which could have resulted in own goals.  First, from a Mahrez free-kick, Vardy crossed and Mariappa diverted the ball onto the post, with Gomes beaten.  Soon after, a cross from Fuchs was met with a diving header from Kabasele that required a smart save from Gomes to keep it out of the net.  At the other end, a lovely through ball from Capoue set Niang free, but his shot hit the side netting.  After a long period of patient build-up play, Okaka turned and unleashed a shot that was blocked by the legs of Schmeichel.  Watford threatened again as Capoue met a cross from Janmaat with a looping header that was easily gathered by the Leicester keeper.  Then it was Leicester’s turn to break as Albrighton fed Drinkwater who could only find the side netting.  Cleverley had a decent chance to grab the first goal with a shot that required a great save from Schmeichel.  But it was the home side who took the lead in the 38th minute.  The events leading to the goal started when Okazaki broke forward and Prödl pulled him over to stop his progress.  The resulting free-kick hit the wall for a corner, from which Drinkwater crossed, the ball bounced off Capoue, who was unable to clear, and fell to Ndidi who finished past Gomes.  The Watford players looked rattled after conceding the goal and nearly let in another within minutes as a shot from Mahrez took a deflection off Cleverley and hit the top of the crossbar.  There was a half chance for an equalizer in time added on as Okaka received a Amrabat header with his back to goal, but his overhead kick cleared the bar.

Capoue and Cleverley prepare for a free kick

At half time, we felt rather unfortunate to be behind as, for once, Watford had more shots on and off target as well as dominating possession.  Unfortunately, we had been punished for a defensive mistake.

The home side had a great chance to increase their lead early in the second half as the defence stood off allowing Vardy to shoot but, thankfully, Gomes was equal to it.  Watford had a great chance to draw level as Amrabat crossed for Okaka at the far post, but his header was over the bar.  At this point, a section of the away support starting chanting for Deeney, who wasn’t even warming up.  This was followed by chants for Flores and Boothroyd!  The home side were two up on 58 minutes as a mistake from Mariappa allowed Mahrez to escape and finish past Gomes.  It was getting a bit fraught in the away end and there appeared to be some scuffles in the next block.  The stewards were certainly involved in some heated discussions with some of the fans.  Each manager rang the changes just after the hour mark as Slimani and King replaced Okazaki and Drinkwater for the home side, and Deeney came on for Capoue for the visitors, much to the approval of the bloke behind me who had been complaining about Etienne for the entire game.

Okaka

Leicester had a great chance to increase their lead as Vardy received a lovely through ball from Slimani, cut inside and shot from short range, but Gomes made a smart save at the near post.  The home side had another chance to increase the lead as a free kick from Fuchs just cleared the bar.  Mazzarri made a second, and rather odd, change bringing Zúñiga on for Kabasele.  The travelling Hornets stopped moaning long enough to give a rousing chorus of “One Graham Taylor” on the 72nd minute.  The noise from the away fans had a positive effect as the visitors had a series of goal attempts.  First, a lovely curling shot from Niang had to be pushed clear by Schmeichel.  Next Cleverley tried a shot from the edge of the area, but that was also saved.  Then an Amrabat cross was cleared to Cleverley but his shot was tipped over by Schmeichel.  There was a final substitution apiece as Mahrez made way for Gray for the home side while Mazzarri gave Dion Pereira his debut in place of Niang.  The youngster made a good start with a lovely cross that was headed down by Okaka and prodded just wide by Deeney.  Leicester’s third goal came in time added on, as a Watford attack broke down after Doucouré had the ball in the Leicester box, but decided not to shoot.  Leicester launched a quick break, Vardy found Albrighton who scored with a shot in off the post.  The scoreline was rather harsh and didn’t reflect the balance of play, but Watford had failed to make the most of their chances and were undone by a couple of defensive errors.

Dion Pereira

There was an interesting reaction from the travelling Hornets at the final whistle as the booing from those who are so inclined was almost drowned out by the warm applause from the majority in the crowd.  Debutant, Pereira, who had contributed a very pleasing cameo, approached the away end alongside Deeney.  Troy realised that the youngster would assume that any applause was being directed at his captain, so he stood back and allowed him to continue to receive an ovation from the crowd that he clearly appreciated.

As we queued in the ladies after the game, a little girl waiting for her Mum and little sister complained, “We are going to be relegated.”  When I pointed out that Hull had lost to Sunderland, she wasn’t placated.  “We lost to Hull, how embarrassing is that?  My friends at school take the mickey out of me.”  “At least you go to support your team.”  She smiled, “Yes.  I call them plastic fans.”

So, with three games remaining, we are still not mathematically safe, although it will take an extreme set of results for Watford to be relegated.  But it is still very frustrating that the season is fizzling out in such a manner.  There was a sad irony in hearing chants for Flores who, this time last season, was overseeing performances every bit as dull as those we are seeing under Mazzarri.  I spoke to a couple of fans after the game who can’t wait for the season to be over, which is a great shame.  But, come the end of May, I know we will all be counting the days until the fixtures are released.

Beating the Champions

The pathetic haul for the adults in the game

The pathetic haul for the adults in the game

After the international break, it was lovely to be back home for the game against Leicester.  The week off had provided some precious time to recover from the horror of the defeat to Liverpool, we could only hope that the players had also recovered.  There was a lot made pre-game of the fact that we were facing the current champions, but their form so far this season meant that we went into the match hopeful of getting a result.

As we gathered in the West Herts, we made this another sort of game day.  Our party occasionally play a game for which everyone brings in a number of wrapped ‘gifts’ with a certain theme.  They are placed in the centre of the table then a pack of cards is dealt to the participants.  As the cards from a second pack are revealed, if you match that card you take a gift.  When all the gifts are gone, you start stealing from other participants.  Everyone has their strategy in this game.  Some like the gifts in very shiny paper, another, who will remain nameless, targets the girls to steal their gifts.  It can get rather rowdy at times.  But this game (with the theme being ‘J’) took on a very different tone to usual when five-year-old Holly decided to take part.  She was an early winner (never a good thing), but it was a hard-hearted soul who was going to steal from her stash (the look of horror when someone tried was a picture), so she continued to amass gifts while the rest of us swapped the pitiful remainder between ourselves.  It has to be said that the unwrapped gifts are not a patch on the shiny packages and she was less than impressed when she opened a set of men’s underwear (jockey shorts) but a stash of jelly babies and jaffa cakes meant that she went home happy.

The opening scorer lines up for the restart

The opening scorer lines up for the restart

Mazzarri made two changes from the Liverpool game with Ighalo and the suspended Holebas making way for Zúñiga and Prödl.  So the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Janmaat, Pereyra, Behrami, Capoue, Zúñiga; Amrabat and Deeney.

No sooner had we taken our seats after kick-off but we were out of them again as Capoue opened the scoring after Pereyra had broken forward and delivered a cross that was knocked down by Deeney for the Frenchman to hit home.  All of a sudden the cobwebs were swept away, the horror of Liverpool was forgotten and football was fun again.  I had a slight panic as the ball went in and I realized that my camera and notebook were still in my bag.  I am usually able to retrieve them at leisure during the first few minutes of the game.  Pereyra impressed again with some lovely skill to beat a defender on the wing.  It isn’t often that the big screen shows a replay of a player beating an opponent, but this was well worth repeated viewings.  He produced something even better soon afterwards as he cut into the box and curled an exquisite shot into the top corner.  Just when it was looking like it would be our day, Vardy broke into the box.  He was going nowhere but Britos couldn’t resist putting in a tackle, the Leicester striker went down and the referee pointed to the spot.  Despite encouraging chants from the Rookery for Gomes, Mahrez sent him the wrong way and reduced the deficit.

Celebrating Pereyra's fantastic goal

Celebrating Pereyra’s fantastic goal

There followed chances from corners at both ends of the field in quick succession.  First Kaboul met a delivery from Capoue with a header that flew wide of the near post.  Then Albrighton’s corner was headed over the bar by Huth.  It had been a breathless first 20 minutes and one of my neighbours commented on the notes that I had made so far hoping that I had the energy to keep up.  But it calmed down after that and I was able to notice other aspects of the day such as the fact that there was a huge number of blue and white beanie hats on show in the away end.  It was confirmed after the game by some Leicester fans, that these had been left on the seats, a gift from the owner (who regularly plies them with pints and doughnuts).  They commented that most of them were on the ground by the end of the game, but one of them had kept his as it was proudly on display on the table in the West Herts.  The home side received a couple of bookings, first Zúñiga for a foul on Vardy that looked fairly innocuous (but don’t they always due to his propensity for falling), then a puzzling caution for Britos which could only have been for complaining about the Leicester wall at a free kick.  Watford had a great chance to increase the lead in the 37th minute as Deeney went on a run before playing a square ball to Amrabat in the box.  Sadly, with the goal at his mercy, the Dutchman failed to connect and the chance went begging.  There were boos at half time but, on this occasion, they were aimed at the referee as the performance of the Hornets had been very pleasing indeed.

Lining up in the box waiting for a corner

Lining up in the box waiting for a corner

The start of the second half was considerably calmer and it was the 64th minute before there was a real goal chance as Amrabat battled past a defender to get into the box, cut the ball back for Janmaat whose cross was headed goalwards by Pereyra, but Zieler was able to make the save.  Watford had another chance to increase the lead as Pereyra delivered a corner that Kaboul headed just wide.  The visitors made the first substitutions bringing Schlupp and Gray on for Fuchs and Okazaki.  Another great chance went begging for the Hornets as Capoue delivered a perfect corner, but Prödl failed to connect.  Amrabat should have done better as he burst in to the box and hit a quick shot that flew wide when Deeney was in space.  Troy could not hide his frustration with his team mate.  Leicester’s final substitution saw Albrighton make way for Musa.  Leicester had a flurry of chances to grab a late equalizer, but the Hornet defence stood strong blocking all attempts to play the ball into the box.  Mazzarri’s first change came in the 87th minute as Amrabat made way for Guedioura.  Nordin looked annoyed at being replaced, even though he had been limping after a tackle a little earlier.  The final change saw Okaka on for Deeney, again the player leaving the field did not look happy with his manager’s decision.  As the fourth official indicated five additional minutes, there were some nerves in the away end, but the only Leicester attempt in time added on was a shot from Vardy that flew high and wide, not troubling Gomes in the Watford goal.

Challenging in the Leicester box

Challenging in the Leicester box

Unlike the end of the game at Liverpool when, understandably, almost all of the players disappeared straight down the tunnel, there was a lap of the stands by the whole team, even those who usually make do with a perfunctory clap towards the crowd.  It was appreciated as it gave us a chance to congratulate them all as we celebrated a terrific win.

This was the best performance that Watford have put in for some time.  The fast start and the early goals set us up well, but the game could not continue at that pace.  However Watford had the best of the later chances and, when challenged, the defence resisted everything that was thrown at them meaning that Gomes didn’t have to make a save worthy of the name.  Deeney was more involved than he has been for a few weeks and, had he been a little more selfish, may well have scored his 100th goal.  Behrami was back on form in the midfield, which always helps both the attack and the defence.  Then there was Pereyra who gave us a couple of moments that were worth the price of admission on their own.  Watford now have 18 points from the first 12 games, which is a 10 point improvement on their haul in the same games last season, and are sitting pretty in eighth place in the table and are there on merit.  This season is just getting better and better.

Top of the Table

Flag in the Lower GT

Flag in the Lower GT

The nerves started on Friday night when Norwich played Middlesbrough.  If truth be told, a draw would have been the best result, but a Boro win was a decent second option.  However, the result of that game was irrelevant if we didn’t win on Saturday.

I have a recurring nightmare in which I am desperately trying to get to a match and events conspire to stop me.  The most recent variant of this had me on a train with a load of yobs who had caused delays, and it was clear that I wasn’t going to get to the stadium for kick-off.  Thankfully I woke up, remembered that I was driving to the game and was at the West Herts by 12:45.  Given the pre-match nerves it was hard to enjoy the gathering, although an unexpected appearance by Toddy was a welcome and delightful distraction.

The spectacle in the Rookery

The spectacle in the Rookery

When I reached Occupation Road, Doreen in the Bill Mainwood hut had sold out of programmes, but I was determined not to see this as a bad omen.  Positive thinking was the order of the day.  That was certainly the ethos of the 1881 who had ensured that the flags were out in force in the Rookery and, throughout the home areas, it was great to see the sea of yellow.

As on Wednesday there were four changes with Hoban, Paredes, Layun and Vydra replacing Connolly, Anya, Motta and Ighalo.  So the starting line-up was Gomes, Hoban, Cathcart, Angella, Paredes, Layun, Watson, Guedioura, Abdi, Vydra and Deeney.  Former Watford youngster Rob Kiernan started for the visitors and the legend that is Robbo was on their bench.

Waiting for the ball to drop

Waiting for the ball to drop

My hope for the game was much the same as on Wednesday.  Let us score early and often.  We started very brightly with an exchange of passes between Vydra and Guedioura finishing in a shot from Matej that was blocked.  Watson found Deeney on the right but Troy’s cross was too long and there was nobody to get on the end of it.  It had been all Watford until the 10th minute when Shinnie surged into the box, but Paredes was there to nick the ball off his feet before he could shoot.  Watford continued to dominate without mustering a shot on goal worthy of the name and in the 18th minute Birmingham had a free kick on the corner of the box which was headed clear by Hoban.  Watford broke forward through Guedioura who fed Deeney, his shot was blocked and the ball fell to Vydra whose shot appeared to hit the roof of the net.  There were wild celebrations in the Rookery until we realized that the ball had actually rebounded off the crossbar.  Vydra was straight back on the attack but this time his shot was wide of the far post.  Then Vydra battled into the box and passed to Abdi who moved the ball on to Guedioura whose shot was blocked.  The Algerian had the next goal attempt but his shot from distance was easily caught by Randolph.  Just before the half hour Watford had a great chance to take the lead as Vydra found Abdi who advanced into the box but his shot was deflected wide of the far post.  Deeney was the next to threaten the Birmingham goal as he latched on to a lovely ball from Guedioura but Randolph was down to block his shot.  The visitors threatened briefly with a shot from Donaldson that was straight at Gomes.  It was then Deeney’s turn to hit a shot that was easily caught.  Deeney’s next shot bounced off a defender for a corner.  As we approached the 44th minute, a shot from Gray was deflected wide by Angella.  Gomes rose to catch the corner as the applause rang out for Nic Cruwys, and it was very gratifying at that point to see the Birmingham fans joining in.

So at half time we were drawing, Bournemouth were a goal down to Sheffield Wednesday and we were reflecting that we had had all the possession, were playing some lovely football, but there was no end product.  However, more of the same and we would surely make the breakthrough.

Inspired substitution

Inspired substitution

Early in the second half, a forward run by Vydra was stopped when he was pushed over on the edge of the area, but the referee gave nothing.  The first goal chance of the second period fell to the visitors as Donaldson beat Angella and unleashed a shot which Gomes parried.  Jokanovic decided to make an early double substitution replacing Layun and Vydra with Anya and Ighalo.  It turned out to be an inspired move as Deeney passed to Anya on the overlap and his cross was met with a scissor kick volley by Cathcart to put Watford into the lead.  The celebrations in the stands were massive.  After the goal the Rookery had a bounce and it was lovely to see fellow bouncers in the SEJ stand, but I was amazed to see some in the Upper GT.  Unprecedented behaviour that will surely lead to season tickets being rescinded.  The first caution of the game went to Birmingham’s Grounds for a foul on Deeney.  Watford had a great chance to increase their lead as Angella came running in to connect with an Abdi free kick.

Celebrating Cathcart's wonder goal

Celebrating Cathcart’s wonder goal

Gabriele ended up in the net but, sadly, his header cleared the bar.  Then Anya ran down the left wing and cut into the box but his shot was wide of the near post.  Goalscorer Cathcart was the next to see yellow as he hacked Gray down on the wing.  Deeney benefited from a ball rebounding off the referee, he found Guedioura who fed Anya whose shot was blocked, although it would have gone wide anyway.  Deeney then tried a shot from distance that was deflected wide.  Angella had another great goal attempt from an Abdi corner, this time his header was on target and had to be cleared off the line.  Guedioura broke into the Birmingham box, but his shot was blocked for a corner.  Deeney ran onto a through ball and his shot hit the angle of the crossbar and post but the flag was up for offside.  Anya was taken down on the side of the penalty area.  The free kick was from an acute angle and pushed clear by Randolph.  At the other end, a Birmingham free-kick was headed wide by Kiernan.  Jokanovic made a final change late bringing Tözsér on for Abdi.  Into time added on, the Watford crowd were singing their hearts out, encouraging their team on to the win.

Attacking a corner

Attacking a corner

At the final whistle there were tremendous celebrations, but they were slightly tinged with disappointment at the news filtering through that Bournemouth had come from behind to win.  All the same, as the team did their tour of the stands to thank the crowd, the Rookery was still packed with fans waving flags and chanting.  Promotion was now in our own hands.  When the players had all left the pitch we made our way into the concourse.  As we waited for my brother-in-law, the TV was showing the Sky Sports reporter at the Goldsands giving what I assumed was the round-up of the game.  Then Nigel appeared and informed us that Sheffield Wednesday had won a penalty and the picture on the screen took on a different significance.  There was a group of fans celebrating behind the reporter and I could have sworn that their shirts were red but then the word ‘goal’ appeared on the screen and the celebration in the Rookery concourse was probably more mental than that at the game itself.  There was an agonizing wait for the final whistle but, at last, the final score was confirmed sparking another manic celebration in the concourse.

As we made our way up Occupation Road, the sun shining down was nothing like as bright as the huge smiles of the Watford faithful.  It is all in our hands now.  Two wins and we go up as champions.

In a pre-match interview, Troy Deeney was asked about pressure, “You could be struggling to pay your bills or playing a game of football.  To win one game of football.  That’s not pressure, that is enjoyment.”  Well said that man.  Two more wins and he’ll be a title-winning captain.  I just hope my nerves can take it.